- Group A
Algeria will be delighted with their group stage draw, after being pooled into one of the more favourable of the 10 groups. Niger and Djibouti were among the weaker teams in their groups, with the latter the lowest-ranked nation left standing in the campaign.
Burkina Faso, the Pot Two team, aren’t the force they once were, and were among Africa’s highest-profile absentees from the expanded 24-team Africa Cup of Nations last summer.
- Group B
Tunisia are rarely eye-catching during qualification, but they typically get the job done. Don’t expect any different this time around.
Even though they were unconvincing at the Nations Cup, they have enough guile and grinta to see off Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea.
Zambia, like Burkina Faso, aren’t as strong as they have been over the last decade, although if a talented crop of players realise their potential under Milutin Sredojevic, they could capitalise on any Tunisian complacency.
- Group C
Nigeria are overwhelming favourites here, and they’ll be boosted by the presence of relative minnows Central African Republic and Liberia.
Despite their tiny stature compared to the Super Eagles, Cape Verde represent Nigeria’s primary threat. They dumped the regional giants out of the Wafu Cup last year, and a recent 0-0 draw with Cameroon was evidence of how they can neutralise the continent’s heavyweights.
However, it’s hard to see the islanders having enough consistency to unseat Gernot Rohr’s side from top spot.
- Group D
Cameroon were the unfortunate top seeds to be drawn against Pot Two’s biggest threat—the Ivory Coast—in Tuesday’s draw.
Mozambique and Malawi have shown signs of quality over the last 18 months, but this one will surely boil down to the top two.
And I believe that the Indomitable Lions will fall short. The Elephants have begun to turn the corner after a poor World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign, and the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Maxwel Cornet and Wilfried Zaha should be able to outgun most opponents.
If Serge Aurier, Franck Kessie and Eric Bailly can rediscover the form they enjoyed earlier in their careers, than the Elephants can go all the way to Qatar.
- Group E
Like Group D, I’m predicting the seeds will miss out on top spot here.
While Mali are favourites, on paper, to advance, Uganda are one of Africa’s coming forces, and have come on leaps and bounds over the last three years.
Johnny McKinstry is continuing the fine work of Milutin Sredojevic and Sebastien Desabre, and he has some fine talent at his disposal as they look to become East Africa’s first World Cup qualifiers.
I’m not ruling out Kenya also upsetting the established order, but while this group is there for the taking, the Cranes are my pick.
- Group F
Egypt won’t have it as easy as some are suggesting, even though I believe that they’ll have enough to advance.
Libya and Angola are tougher than their Fifa world ranking may suggest, although while Gabon have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, their structural dysfunction and a lack of quality in the supporting cast suggests that qualification may be beyond them.
Despite their poor Afcon, Egypt are a rugged bunch, and crucially, they have experience of getting over the line in World Cup qualification.
- Group G
Having been pitted together in the Afcon 2021 qualifying campaign, Ghana and South Africa are set to meet again on the road to Qatar.
The Black Stars won 2-0 in Cape Coast in their recent Nations Cup qualifying bout, but following the departure of Kwasi Appiah and the arrival of Charles Akonnor, the West Africans are something of an unknown quantity again.
If Bafana Bafana can build on their encouraging showing under Stuart Baxter in 2019—particularly at the Nations Cup—then they could leapfrog a vulnerable Ghana side into top spot.
- Group H
Senegal will be delighted with this draw, and I can certainly see them taking top spot.
In the likes of Sadio Mane, Mbaye Diagne and Habib Diallo, they boast plenty of game-winners, and their rivals—Congo-Brazzaville, Namibia and Togo—just can’t bring the same quality to the table.
The Red Devils, Senegal’s nearest rivals, were defeated 2-0 by the Teranga Lions in Thies in November, and I can’t see them upsetting the odds here.
While Togo’s Claude Le Roy deserves immense respect for his work in African football, the Sparrow Hawks would need to improve immensely—they were recently defeated 1-0 at home by the Comoros—if they’re to progress.
- Group I
Like a few other heavyweights, Morocco can be particularly delighted with their draw.
The Atlas Lions will still need to adapt to life under Vahid Halilhodzic following their disappointing Afcon showing and the exit of Herve Renard.
However, in Hakim Ziyech, they boast the finest African playmaker in the game today, and as he demonstrated during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, he’s more than capable of carving Africa’s lesser nations apart.
Guinea-Bissau and Sudan will aim to frustrate the Atlas Lions, who are also likely to have too much for Naby Keita’s Guinea.
- Group J
Comfortably the most open group of the 10, where all four teams will harbour tangible ambitions of progressing as group winners.
All four qualified for the Nations Cup, with only Tanzania falling at the first hurdle, and even the East Africans have a cutting edge of their own.
Benin and Madagascar cannot be overlooked; they’ve broken new ground over the last 18 months, and both have proven that they can stymie—and even beat—the continent’s biggest sides.
The Democratic Republic of Congo have the history, and have players in some of the world’s top leagues, but there’s a sense that they’ve come to the end of a cycle. Florent Ibenge has departed, and his replacement, Christian Nsengi-Biembe, has no experience at this level.
The Leopards may be the favourites, but Benin’s ruggedness, physicality and guile make them my pick to progress.