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Africa will be without huge stars at the World Cup, but which ones?

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Marcotti reacts to Italy's STUNNING loss to North Macedonia (1:35)

Gab Marcotti shares his thoughts about Italy's shocking loss to North Macedonia in the qualifying semifinals. (1:35)

African football fans will be treated this week to the playoff round of the continent's World Cup qualifying campaign, with the 10 teams still standing in the Race for Qatar to be whittled down to five.

The field is stacked in terms of individual quality, World Cup heritage, and intrigue, although there are vulnerabilities aplenty among the contenders -- several of whom are still picking themselves up after bruising Africa Cup of Nations campaigns.

Cameroon, Ghana and Tunisia have all changed their head coach since the AFCON tournament -- adding an element of unpredictability to their preparations -- while Nigeria u-turned on the appointment of Jose Peseiro, opting to stick with interim manager Augustine Eguavoen despite their Last 16 exit in Cameroon.

Morocco kept faith with their head coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, despite his increasingly testy relationship with the squad and general discontent with their Nations Cup performance, while Algeria's Djamel Belmadi finds himself under immense pressure after a miserable title defence in January.

Nations Cup finalists Egypt and Senegal boast the most settled set-ups heading into the first leg of the playoffs on Friday, although both arguably have the toughest assignments ahead of them after being pitted against each other in the third and final round of the qualification tournament.

Against this backdrop, the coming home-and-away matches are sure to be tantalising affairs. Which quintet of sides will progress to Qatar?

Nigeria vs. Ghana

Nigeria have the edge in this battle even if the gap between West African rivals is less than it was when the draw was made, after they experienced differing fortunes in the Nations Cup group stage.

Ghana's opening round exit in Cameroon -- and their 3-2 defeat by the Comoros -- ultimately cost head coach Milovan Rajevac his job, ending his return (which had promised so much) as it was just getting off the ground.

Nigeria, by contrast, excelled during the early stages of the biennial showpiece -- winning all three group-stage games -- but they were brought back down to earth with that Last 16 elimination by Tunisia.

While the Black Stars switched coaches, appointing Otto Addo, with ex-Newcastle United boss Chris Hughton in a technical advisor role, Nigeria stuck with Eguavoen, and he'll be able to welcome hefty firepower back to the fold in the form of Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo.

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Ademola Lookman's nationality switch has been ratified by FIFA, and he will compete with the likes of Samuel Chukwueze and Moses Simon for a wide role, although Alex Iwobi is suspended after his mindless red card in the Tunisia defeat.

The loss of goalkeeper Maduka Okoye (COVID-19) and Wilfred Ndidi (medial ligament injury) are damaging for the Super Eagles, with the latter particularly difficult to replace in midfield.

Innocent Bonke of Lorient wasn't in the original squad announced by Eguavoen, but he might now step into a key role -- tasked with trying to neutralise Thomas Partey -- after being handed a late call-up.

Ghana are without Kamal Deen Sulemana (cracked vertebra) and Andre Ayew (suspended after being sent off against the Comoros), but Jordan Ayew travelled out to join the squad on Thursday after a late coronavirus scare. Ayew's arrival is a boost, but he is not the out-and-out goalscorer Ghana desperately need if they're to hurt the Super Eagles.

What role could the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi -- hosting the Jollof Derby after the fixture was moved from Cape Coast -- play as the Black Stars look to stun their illustrious neighbours and give themselves a first leg advantage?

Verdict: Nigeria

Cameroon vs. Algeria

Algeria return to the Stade Japoma in Douala -- the site of their worst Nations Cup nightmares in January -- as they look to make amends for a disastrous title defence and catastrophic tournament showing.

The 2021 AFCON has done much to damage the legacy of a magnificent generation who won the 2019 tournament while embarking on a record 35-game undefeated streak that was ended unceremoniously by lowly Equatorial Guinea in Douala on Jan. 16.

They cannot afford another high-profile failure, and under-pressure head coach Belmadi knows it as he looks to salvage his reputation.

Belmadi has turned to veteran midfielder Adlene Guedioura -- currently playing with Burton Albion in League One -- and uncapped 32-year-old Mohamed Benyettou as he looks to freshen things up after the AFCON, but he desperately needs Algeria to rediscover the muscle memory and relentless winning mentality that underpinned their undefeated streak.

They certainly have the quality to dispatch Cameroon, and it's worth remembering that they registered more possession, chances created, attempted shots, and the highest pass-success rate of any team at the Nations Cup across their first two fixtures, despite taking just one point.

The Indomitable Lions ended the AFCON with their rousing comeback against Burkina Faso in the third-place playoff, with Vincent Aboubakar inspiring the tournament hosts to end their campaign on a high note after trailing 3-0.

They'll need that same verve -- rather than the lethargy and confusion of the first half -- if they're to progress, and a strong performance in Douala is vital considering Algeria's fearsome record in Blida, where they haven't lost a competitive fixture in 18 years.

Former Cameroon captain Rigobert Song has replaced Toni Conceicao as head coach, but much as he's familiar with the personnel and the federation setup, he has had little opportunity to change things around after the Nations Cup. The timing of his appointment by FECAFOOT president Samuel Eto'o was questionable, and it could cost Cameroon.

AFCON starters Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Moumi Ngamaleu are missing through injury, although Swansea City midfielder Olivier Ntcham gets his first call-up.

Verdict: Algeria

Morocco vs. Democratic Republic of Congo

Congo DR are the only team of the 10 still standing who did not qualify for the Nations Cup, and they find themselves at a disadvantage having missed out on the familiarity, bonding and training time that Morocco enjoyed during their tournament experience.

That's not to say that it was an entirely positive month for the Atlas Lions, who started brightly but ultimately limped out against Egypt.

That defeat -- and the changing-room bust-up that followed -- exposed deeper discontent within the Morocco camp, with elements of the squad unhappy with coach Halilhodzic's hardline approach towards Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui.

The federation's decision to stick with the Bosnian coach after the AFCON means neither influential player has returned to the fold, and the Atlas Lions will be relieved that Sofiane Boufal's suspension has been overturned, opening the door for him to again take the creative role vacated by Ziyech.

The Leopards -- eyeing a first World Cup appearance since 1974 -- are outsiders, but the likes of Cedric Bakambu, Yannick Bolasie, Dieumerci Mbokani and Gael Kakuta and Paul-Jose M'Poku are experienced and talented campaigners who can certainly trouble the North Africans.

DRC boast the defensive rigour of head coach Hector Cuper and a positive result in front of their passionate fans in Kinshasa on Friday could set up a shock qualification, but they lack the professionalism and polish that should give Morocco the edge.

Verdict: Morocco

Egypt vs. Senegal

This is the most high-profile of the five ties, as Egypt and Senegal reprise the Nations Cup final and Liverpool brothers Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah -- Africa's top two players -- spar once again.

It's a bitter shame that one of the pair has to miss out on the World Cup in their prime, and the stakes for them, acutely aware of their legacies, should give this double-header yet another layer of tension and intrigue.

Unsurprisingly, Senegal are the most settled of all of the 10 sides in the playoffs, as they look to build on a strong AFCON campaign that delivered their first continental crown and a move up to No. 18 in the FIFA World Rankings.

Full-back Youssouf Sabaly is the only notable inclusion after the victory in Cameroon, and Senegal will expect to rely on their solid defence, cohesive midfield and variety of attacking options to get over the line.

Man for man -- with the exception of Salah -- Senegal are superior to Egypt, but the Pharaohs silenced the doubters repeatedly en route to the Nations Cup final and are more than capable of defeating Africa's champions.

Mane was the hero of the AFCON final -- netting the decisive penalty in the shootout after missing from the spot during regular time; will it be Salah who steals the show when the pair cross swords again in Cairo on Friday?

Verdict: Senegal

Mali vs. Tunisia

Egypt and Senegal are not alone in renew hostilities so soon after the Nations Cup, with Mali and Tunisia also set to meet again after a recent AFCON collision.

The West Africans won their group-stage tussle 1-0 -- the result overshadowed by referee Janny Sikazwe's questionable decisions -- but will they repeat the trick in Bamako on Friday?

Mali are the only team in the playoffs who have never qualified for the World Cup, and they're up against a seasoned Tunisia side that has the nous and experience to get over the line.

The Carthage Eagles replaced head coach Mondher Kebaier with Jalel Kadri after the AFCON, and he's wasted little time in restoring Taha Yassine Khenissi (returning after a drugs ban) and Ferjani Sassi to the squad already containing World Cup experience in the likes of Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni.

Mali have finally convinced Abdoulaye Doucoure to commit his future to the Eagles, having represented France up to under-21 level, and he could play a key role as Mohamed Magassouba's side look to win the midfield battle.

The West Africans certainly have quality in their ranks, but Tunisia are experts at managing this kind of contest and will fancy their chances of progression.

Verdict: Tunisia