Afcon 2017: Seeded sides set for winning starts

Ivory Coast celebrate winning the 2015 Nations Cup

All the top seeds have home advantage and are expected to win their opening 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers this weekend.

It could mean predictable results in the first of six match days as 52 teams across 13 groups begin their quest to reach the tournament in Gabon.

Fifteen places are up for grabs - with hosts Gabon already given one automatic place and involved in the qualifiers only in a non-competitive capacity.

Three of the teams looking to book their place will have extra incentive to book their place - Morocco, Tunisia and The Gambia were given reprieves having been excluded by the Confederation of African Football for various misdemeanours.

Morocco had been punished for failing to host the 2015 Nations Cup because of their fears over Ebola, Tunisia had been banned for their behaviour during the tournament, while The Gambia had been suspended for fielding over-age players.

Tunisia got off to the perfect start on Friday, the former African champions were 8-1 winners over Djibouti, the third lowest ranked national football team in the world and 178 places behind the North Africans.

Also on Friday Morocco beat Libya 1-0, while Guinea suffered a shock 2-1 loss to Swaziland - the match played in Casablanca because Guinea are banned from competing at home over the threat of Ebola in their country.

Record seven-time African champions Egypt, who failed to qualify from the 2015 finals in Equatorial Guinea, host Tanzania near Alexandria.

New Argentina-born coach Hector Cuper insists he will not underestimate the east Africans, whose build-up included losses to Swaziland, Madagascar, Lesotho and Rwanda.

"I respect all our opponents equally and my aim is book the automatic place for the finals," he said.

The Gambia travel to South Africa, hoping Bafana Bafana have not yet recovered from failing to win any of their matches in Equatorial Guinea.

South Africa coach Ephraim 'Shakes' Mashaba has even warned that the west Africans could prove a "banana skin".

And recently appointed Senegal coach Aliou Cisse, whose side will face Burundi, says 'favourites' in football matches are a figment of journalists' imaginations.

"Favourites belong in newspapers," he said, scornfully dismissing the popular term as he announced a squad to play Burundi in Dakar.

However, Algeria at home to the Seychelles is another fixture that has a home victory and a glut of goals written all over it.

One hundred and sixty six places divide them on the world rankings and while Algeria are regular Nations Cup tournament participants, Seychelles have never come close to qualifying.

Seychelles coach Ulrich Mathiot admits his team are likely to defend with 10 men for most of the match in Blida, south of Algiers.

"We have no choice," he conceded. "All-out attack would be suicidal against Algeria, a great team with great individual footballers."

Ghana, runners-up to the Ivory Coast in the 2015 Cup of Nations last February, and three-time champions Nigeria are other countries facing countries ranked far lower.

Mauritius go to Accra with goalkeeper Kevin Jean-Louis in excellent form, but there is no evidence to suggest they can bridge a 142-place gap in the rankings.

Arch-predator Asamoah Gyan has recovered from injury to lead the Ghana attack, although injured creator Andre Ayew misses out.

There is considerable excitement among Ghanaians over Bernard Mensah, a 20-year-old midfielder with a venomous shot who plays in Portugal and is reportedly being watched by Manchester United.

Burkina Faso, four-time title-holders Cameroon and shock 2012 champions Zambia all need to erase bad memories of Equatorial Guinea as they propped up standings.

All start with home games and should collect maximum points as Burkina Faso play the Comoros Islands, Cameroon meet Mauritania and Zambia face Guinea-Bissau.

Democratic Republic of Congo, the surprise 2015 bronze medalists, start in Kinshasa against Madagascar, a side boasting a prolific scorer in Sarivahy Vombola but a suspect defence.

Reigning champions Ivory Coast have a bye in the only three-team group and visit automatic qualifiers Gabon for a friendly minus injured talisman and record four-time African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure.

All but two countries, Eritrea and Somalia, have entered the preliminaries of the competition in a record turnout for the Nations Cup, with 26 qualifiers taking place this weekend.

The winner of each of the 13 groups will qualify for the finals plus the two best runners-up and 2017 hosts Gabon.

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