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JOHANNESBURG: Prolific Liverpool scorer and Egypt captain Mohamed Salah will be among the stars in action this week when 2026 World Cup qualifying in Africa kicks off with two matchdays.

His two Premier League goals against Brentford at the weekend raised his total to 200 in English football, and he is now set to shine against Group A rivals Djibouti and Sierra Leone.

Salah was the second highest ranked African in the Ballon d’Or last month behind Napoli and Nigeria forward Victor Osimhen, who misses the first matchdays due to an injury.

Omar Marmoush of Eintracht Frankfurt and Mostafa Mohamed of Nantes are other Egyptians who have been scoring regularly in major European leagues this season.

Djibouti, who face Egypt in Cairo on Thursday, are among the weakest African national teams and have twice suffered eight-goal hidings in World Cup qualifiers.

Sierra Leone will be handicapped at having to stage a home fixture against Egypt on Sunday in Liberia because they lack an international-standard stadium.

Egypt have won the Africa Cup of Nations a record seven times, but struggle in World Cup qualifying, reaching the finals only three times, compared with eight appearances by Cameroon.

The strongest challenge to Salah and his teammates could come from Burkina Faso, ranked 10th in Africa, five places below Egypt. Guinea-Bissau and Ethiopia are the other Group A contenders.

Nigeria must do without Osimhen, one of the favourites to win the CAF Footballer of the Year award next month, and injured AC Milan winger Samuel Chukwueze against Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

But Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro has many talented replacements to choose from, including Victor Boniface of Bayer Leverkusen and Taiwo Awoniyi of Nottingham Forest.

There are concerns, however, about the Super Eagles’ defence with Cyprus-based goalkeeper Francis Uzoho coming under fire for his performances in two recent friendly matches.

Zimbabwe are back in international football after a FIFA ban for government interference prevented them competing in 2024 Cup of Nations qualifying.

Biggest threats

They are among 17 African countries who cannot play at home either because of sub-standard stadiums or safety concerns and will host Nigeria in the Rwandan city of Butare.

South Africa are considered the biggest threats to Nigeria in Group C, but will tackle Benin at home and Rwanda away minus star Lyle Foster.

The Burnley forward and only South African in the Premier League has been sidelined by the recurrence of a mental health issue.

Former Premier League manager Chris Hughton admits he is under pressure as Ghana coach ahead of qualifiers at home to Madagascar and away to the Comoros.

“They are two games we must do well in,” he said amid media calls for his dismissal after a four-goal friendly hiding by the United States last month.

Veteran Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew, who joined Ligue 1 outfit Le Havre last weekend, has been recalled, but an injury rules out another midfielder, Thomas Partey from Arsenal.

Last December in Qatar Morocco became the first World Cup semi-finalists from Africa, but they will not be involved in matchday one as opponents Eritrea withdrew without an explanation.

So Saudi Arabia-based goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi and Sevilla forward Youssef en-Nesyri go into action for the Atlas Lions only next Tuesday.

Their belated entry into qualifying will be away to Tanzania in Group E, which also includes resurgent Zambia, Congo Brazzaville and Niger, who are set to hire Moroccan coach Badou Zaki.

The nine group winners after 260 qualifiers that stretch to October 2025 qualify for the record 48 nation finals in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

There could be a 10th African qualifier as the best four runners-up enter a mini-tournament and the winners advance to inter-continental play-offs with two finals places up for grabs.

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