JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Ivory Coast were paired with Senegal in the highlight of the final qualifying round draw for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa made here Thursday.
The Ivorian Elephants finished runners-up to Zambia after a penalty shootout in the 2012 final in Libreville last February after captain and star striker Didier Drogba blazed a regular-time spot kick over.
Senegal went to that tournament as third favourites behind Ivory Coast and Ghana only to lose all three group games against Zambia, co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Libya.
Former champions Ivory Coast will host the first leg in Abidjan over the weekend of September 7-9 with the teams clashing again over the weekend of October 7-9 in Dakar.
Zambia launch their title defence with a home tie against Uganda, Ghana will fancy their chances against Malawi, as will Nigeria against Liberia, at 35 the lowest ranked team in the draw.
Central African Republic, shock qualifiers for the round-of-30 draw at the expense of Egypt, were paired with Burkina Faso and have a good chance of winning and making a first appearance at the tournament.
Ethiopia, another country to upset the odds by ousting Benin, face Sudan in a spicey East African derby and another intriguing regional showdown pits Libya against Algeria.
A notable omission from the 30 countries involved in the draw were record seven-time champions Egypt, who surprisingly fell to Central African Republic during the first qualifying round last month.
The Pharaohs, winners of an unrivalled three consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010, will miss consecutive Cup of Nations tournaments for only the second time since the African football showcase was launched 55 years ago.
It also means 30-plus stars like goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary, centre-back Wael Gomaa and midfielder Mohamed Abou Treika may never again grace a tournament they have many fond memories of.
And the absence of the trio robs the organisers of 'big names' when they try and sell tickets later this year to a South African public often apathetic toward African football.
Libya were originally due to stage the next Cup of Nations in 2014, but the popular rebellion that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi reduced some infrastructure to rubble and 2017 hosts South Africa exchanged dates.
Held in even-number years since the 1968 finals in Ethiopia, the Cup of Nations switches to uneven-number years from 2013 to avoid every second tournament being held early in the same year as a World Cup.
Having to complete the qualifying process within a year meant scrapping the traditional mini-leagues in favour of a three-round home-and-away knockout system with the 16 qualifiers for 2012 receiving byes into the final round.