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Africa Cup of Nations qualification: What's still at stake?

The road to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations has been paved with troubles, with the tournament often appearing to be at the mercy of the Confederation of African Football's internal politics and, notably, the regime change from Issa Hayatou to Ahmad Ahmad in March 2017.

The change in CAF presidency prompted the Afcon changes instigated at the CAF symposium in July 2017, where it was decided that the tournament would be expanded from 16 to 24 teams, even though the 2019 qualifying campaign had already begun.

With host nation Cameroon unable to convince CAF of its ability to host the expanded tournament, and amid concerns over domestic security, the country was replaced and Afcon was belatedly awarded to Egypt -- one of only two replacement candidates -- in January.

Even then the tournament was revised, with the start date pushed back a week due to Ramadan.

The qualifying program itself has been mottled with controversy; the September qualifier in Antananarivo between Madagascar and Senegal was overshadowed by a deadly stampede in which one supporter died and a further 40 were injured.

Another all-too-common undoing -- government interference in domestic football associations -- also resulted in Sierra Leone's suspension in November 2018.

The tournament expansion predictably altered the dynamic of the qualifying campaign, with the majority of the continent's heavyweights all securing their tickets in Egypt before the final weekend.

Some of Africa's smaller footballing nations have found themselves with a better opportunity than ever before to qualify for the continent's grandest stage, with Madagascar and Mauritania both already securing their places for the first time.

Several other nations who have never before qualified are still firmly in the running ahead of the final weekend, while some of the continent's familiar names must still avoid missing out.

Here's the state of play heading into matchday six:

WHO'S IN?

Thirteen teams have already confirmed their participation alongside Egypt, and all will use this international weekend as an opportunity to refine their tactical approach and assess fringe players ahead of future challenges.

Former winners Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria have all qualified already, although several have endured setbacks en route to the tournament and will be keen to end their campaigns on a high note.

For the Super Eagles, the continued absence of captain John Obi Mikel represents an unwanted distraction, while coach Gernot Rohr has also finally lost faith in underperforming Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho ahead of the final qualifier with Seychelles.

Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Kenya and Uganda will also all be in the hat for April's group-stage draw, with the last two entering their final group games -- against Ghana and Tanzania respectively -- without having lost a match or conceding a goal to date.

WHO'S OUT?

Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Malawi, South Sudan, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Botswana, Niger and Eswatini are all already out of the running, while Sierra Leone were disqualified.

The biggest shock so far has been the early elimination of Zambia, unforgettable Afcon winners as recently as 2012.

Despite an encouraging 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, in which they beat Algeria twice and held Cameroon home and away, Sven Vandenbroeck has wholly failed to build on the encouraging elements of Wedson Nyirenda's tenure, and Chipolopolo have amassed just four points.

WINNER TAKES IT ALL

In three of the groups, the final qualifying spots will be determined on the final day in matches pitting together two sides competing for one berth.

In Group B, defending champions Cameroon must now qualify orthodoxly, by avoiding defeat at home against Comoros Islands.

Despite originally being guaranteed of their place in the tournament, Cameroon were entered into the qualifying campaign, with their results counting for the other teams in the tournament.

Now, in this final bout, Clarence Seedorf's side are playing for the right to defend the title they won in Gabon two years ago.

They'd be wise not to underestimate a Comoros side that has never have qualified for Afcon but which held the Indomitable Lions to a 1-1 draw in Mitsamiouli in September.

Perhaps the most compelling clash of the weekend takes place in Bujumbura, where Burundi, competing against a backdrop of ongoing political instability since President Nkurunziza's controversial inauguration for a third term in 2015, are a draw away from a first Afcon appearance.

In their path stand Gabon, who have been present at seven of the past 10 Afcon tournaments despite a litany of internal problems.

The latest stem from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's continued disenchantment with the national-team set-up and rumoured international retirement.

Coach and former international striker Daniel Cousin has revealed that he's expecting the Arsenal hotshot to join the camp for the winner-takes-all showdown, although the player's recent revelation that he's "thinking hard about retiring from international football" doesn't bode well.

It remains to be seen whether he will even show up on Saturday.

In Group E, only one of South Africa and Libya can qualify when they clash in Sfax, Tunisia, on Sunday.

Bafana Bafana should be home and dry already, but a remarkable show of attacking profligacy against the Seychelles in October -- a month before Libya smashed the same team 8-1 -- resulted in a 0-0 draw that leaves them needing to avoid defeat to advance at the expense of the North Africans.

IN THE BALANCE

Gambia are one of several minnows seeking a maiden AFCON qualification, although they must defeat Algeria away and hope that Benin and Togo draw in Cotonou.

"It'll be a very difficult task for Gambia in Blida," coach Tom Saintfiet told ESPN.

"In the last 36 years, we've never won an away game in a competitive qualification round, and Algeria have never lost in Blida.

"If we could win there, it would be amazing."

Either Benin or Togo will definitely qualify with a win, and the former will progress if they draw and Gambia fail to beat Algeria.

The maths is very simple in Group I, where underperforming Angola (nine points) and Burkina Faso (seven) are battling for one place to join unlikely qualifiers Mauritania.

The Stallions, third at the last Afcon tournament, may have the head-to-head advantage on Angola, but Os Palancas Negras (the Sable Antelopes) control the situation and qualify with a win away at already-eliminated Botswana.

With Zambia eliminated from Group K, three teams are competing for two berths.

Guinea-Bissau (eight points) hold the advantage heading into the final weekend as they look to build on their maiden qualification in 2017, but defeat at home by Mozambique (seven) will see Namibia (eight) progress if they can avoid losing away in Zambia.

In the event of a Mozambique draw and a Namibia defeat -- leaving both on eight points -- the latter will qualify on head-to-head away goals scored.

Cape Verde begin the final weekend in bottom spot on four points in Group L, but they will reach Egypt if they defeat first-time hopefuls Lesotho at home and Uganda hold Tanzania away.

Tanzania, coached by Nigeria great Emmanuel Amuneke, need to better Lesotho's result to progress due to an inferior head-to-head record between the pair.

ALL TO PLAY FOR

Finally to Group G, where all four teams are still in with a shot of reaching Egypt.

Zimbabwe (eight points) host Congo-Brazzaville (five), who need a win to progress, knowing that a draw will be sufficient regardless of the result between the Democratic Republic of Congo (six) and Liberia (seven) in Kinshasa. The DRC have taken major strides under Florent Ibenge in recent years, with the pinnacle being a third-placed finish at the 2015 AFCON tournament, but that progress will come to naught if they fail to beat the Lone Stars in front of their own fans.

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