The race to grab places at the TotalEnergies 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Cote d'Ivoire begins this week with the preliminary round which will decide the six teams to advance to the group stage of the qualification tournament.
The preliminary round consisted of the twelve lowest-ranked countries among the 54 entrants: Somalia, Mauritius, Gambia, South Sudan, Chad, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Lesotho, Djibouti, Eswatini, Botswana and Eritrea.
Even before the matches kick-off, Botswana have already booked their place in the qualification group stage after Eritrea withdrew from the competition.
With the exception of Gambia and Mauritius who made their maiden AFCON appearance in the last edition in Cameroon and in 1974 respectively.
All the other countries are chasing their first participation in Africa's premier football tournament and Cafonline.com has previews below:
Gambia vs. Chad
The Scorpions of Gambia, after an outstanding AFCON campaign in Cameroon, would want to make it to the tournament again in 2023 but they have to see off a Chad opposition first in the preliminary stage.
Gambia reached the quarter-finals of the AFCON in their debut appearance only to be eliminated by the hosts Cameroon. They recorded historic wins against Mauritania, Tunisia and Guinea.
Coach Tom Saintfiet has retained the majority of the players who featured in the AFCON to face Chad.
Top scorer with three goals, Ablie Jallow, is included along with Sulayman Marreh, Ebrima Darboe, Yusupha Bobb, Ibou Touray and Omar Colley.
The Scorpions are favourites for this tie taking into consideration the little or no preparations by their Chadian opponents.
The first leg comes off on Wednesday, March 23 at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde whereas the second leg will be staged at the Stade Adrar in Agadir, Morocco on Tuesday March 29.
Somalia vs. Eswatini
It's a new era for Somali football after appointing Dutch man Pieter de Jongh as head coach to help them book their place in the qualification group stages of the 2023 AFCON.
With a lot of the players assembled for the double-header encounter coming from Europe, Canada and the USA, Somalia hope that could be an advantage for them.
Handwalla Mohamed Bwana from MLS side Nashville FC, England-born Yonis Farah who plays Swedish side Eskilstuna and Norway based Amin Askar are expected to play a key role for Somalia.
Eswatini will be counting their two foreign based players in Bonginkosi Dlamini (Sagrada Esperança, Angola), Justice Figuareido (Cape Town All Stars, South Africa) and other seven from Royal Leopards, who are surprise qualifiers for the group phase of the CAF Confederation Cup.
The Shilangu's best recent performance came in 2017 AFCON qualifiers where Eswatini finished second in Group L above Guinea and Malawi.
The National Stadium in Dar es Salaam will host the first leg on Wednesday March 23, 2022 and the second leg will take place at the Mbombela Stadium in South Africa on Sunday.
Lesotho vs. Seychelles
Lesotho Football Association has recently entrusted the national team to Serbian trainer Veselin Jelusic and has tasked him to qualify for the 2023 AFCON in Cote d’Ivoire.
Jelusic aims to begin his reign as Likuena boss with victories against the less fancied Seychelles to make it to group stages.
The first-leg will be played at the Cote D’or Stadium in Mauritius on March 23, while Lesotho will host the return match at Dobsonville Stadium on March 27.
Lesotho experienced forward Jane Thabantšo has called on his team mates to be clinical in the two-legged games.
"We know that Seychelles will make it very difficult for us, but we are prepared to take it to the wire over the two matches," Thabantšo said
"Looking at our previous matches, we have to improve in the final third because you need goals to win you matches."
Thabantšo is among players chasing for the golden boot award in the Lesotho Vodacom Premier League this season.
Djibouti vs. South Sudan
Djibouti and South Sudan lock horns on Wednesday in the first leg of the preliminary round at the Borg El Arab Stadium in Egypt.
Neither of the two teams have ever participated in the tournament proper, and this is something they will both be eager to rectify in the next edition.
The Bright Stars lost out in the group stages of the first round last time out but their form since last year has not been encouraging.
Djibouti have been poor recently, losing their last seven games on the bounce. After conceding 25 goals in 6 games in the World Cup qualifiers, Julien Mete was sacked as head coach.
New coach Mohamed Meraneh Hassan’s side, ranked 192nd in the world, are looking to erase the memories of their 2017 encounter with South Sudan.
They won the first leg of that tie 2-0 at home but were hammered 6-0 in the return fixture which was also AFCON preliminary round games.
South Sudan will play as hosts in the return encounter at the St Mary's Stadium in Uganda on Sunday where Stefano Cusin's team would want to continue with their dominance over Djibouti.
Sao Tome and Principe vs. Mauritius
Sao Tome were involved in the qualifications of the 2021 AFCON and were in the same group with Ghana, South Africa and Sudan.
Despite losing all six matches in the group stage, Sao Tome will relish the experience of participating again for the 2023 edition in Cote d’Ivoire.
Bolivian based 34-year-old striker and captain Luis Leal is set to lead Sao Tome again with support from 14 other players selected from the diaspora.
Mauritius have been preparing for this fixture for over a month having several friendlies with local and one international friendly against Seychelles which ended in a scoreless draw.
Ever since their maiden appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1974, The Dodos have missed out on the preceding editions of the tournament.
Mauritius hope their three foreign based players in Kevin Bru, Lindsay Rose and Jeremy Villeneuve will be key for them to be able to overcome Sao Tome's threat.
Both legs of the tie will take place at the Stade Cote D'or in Mauritius with the first coming off on Thursday, March 24 and the reverse fixture three days later at the same venue.