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Africa giants and Stars seek winning starts

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STARS-TRAININGJOHANNESBURG, June 10- Plenty of goals but few upsets are likely outcomes when the six-matchday 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying competition kicks off Friday.

All the first and second seeds in the 12 four-team groups enjoy home advantage, giving them a distinct early edge as they compete for 15 places at the tournament in Gabon.

Recently appointed Senegal coach and former captain Aliou Cisse says ‘favourites’ in football matches are a figment of journalists’ imaginations.

“Favourites belong in newspapers,” he said, scornfully dismissing the popular term as he announced a squad to play Burundi in Dakar.

But what other tag could be stuck on former African champions Tunisia when they host tiny Djibouti, the third lowest ranked national football team in the world and 178 places behind the North Africans?

Damage limitation will surely be the loftiest ambition for Djibouti, a nation that has conceded nine goals in Kenya and eight in Malawi in past qualifiers.

Algeria at home to the Seychelles is another fixture that has a home victory and a glut of goals written all over it.

One hundred and sixty six places divide them on the world rankings and while Algeria are regular Cup of Nations tournament participants, Seychelles have never come close to qualifying.

Seychelles coach Ulrich Mathiot admits his team are likely to defend with 10 men for most of the match in Blida, south of Algiers.

“We have no choice,” he conceded. “All-out attack would be suicidal against Algeria, a great team with great individual footballers.”

Seychelles have been a little more successful than Djibouti when it comes to containing powerful opponents with five-goal losses in Zimbabwe and Tunisia the worst defeats.

Ghana, runners-up to the Ivory Coast in the 2015 Cup of Nations last February, and three-time champions Nigeria are other countries facing countries ranked far lower.

Mauritius go to Accra with goalkeeper Kevin Jean-Louis in excellent form, but there is no evidence to suggest they can bridge a 142-place gap in the rankings.

Arch-predator Asamoah Gyan has recovered from injury to lead the Ghana attack, although injured creator Andre Ayew misses out.

There is considerable excitement among Ghanaians over Bernard Mensah, a 20-year-old midfielder with a venomous shot who plays in Portugal and is reportedly being watched by Manchester United.

Nigeria have been on a Cup of Nations roller-coaster, eliminating favourites Ivory Coast en route to lifting the trophy in 2013, but failing to qualify for the tournament this year.

Stephen Keshi, who comes and goes regularly as Super Eagles coach, is back in charge and respects Chad, who lie 129 places lower in the world.

“Football in Africa today is dynamic¬†and we have to respect all teams and prepare well,” stressed the coach affectionately called ‘Big Boss’.

Keshi has dismissed reports that he axed John Obi Mikel, insisting the Chelsea midfielder is being “rested”.

Record seven-time African champions Egypt, the other notable absentees from the 2015 finals in Equatorial Guinea, are in the same group as Nigeria and host Tanzania near Alexandria.

New Argentina-born coach Hector Cuper insists he will not underestimate the east Africans, whose build-up included losses to Swaziland, Madagascar, Lesotho and Rwanda.

“I respect all our opponents equally and my aim is book the automatic place for the finals,” said the handler who took Valencia to two unsuccessful Champions League finals appearances.

South Africa, winless 2015 Africa Cup flops after boasting that they would reach the final, tackle Gambia in Durban with coach Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba warning that the west Africans could prove a “banana skin”.

Burkina Faso, four-time title-holders Cameroon and shock 2012 champions Zambia are other countries with sad memories of Equatorial Guinea as they propped up standings.

All start with home games and should collect maximum points as Burkina Faso play the Comoros Islands, Cameroon meet Mauritania and Zambia face Guinea-Bissau.

Democratic Republic of Congo, the surprise 2015 bronze medalists, start in Kinshasa against Madagascar, a side boasting a prolific scorer in Sarivahy Vombola but a suspect defence.

Reigning champions Ivory Coast have a bye in the only three-team group and visit automatic qualifiers Gabon for a friendly minus injured talisman and record four-time African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure.

Despite less than ideal preparations, Kenya travel to Congo Brazzaville for their opener with Scot Bobby Williamson aiming to lead the dormant East African giants to the final for the first time since 2004.

Brazzaville under veteran French wizard, Claude Le Roy are among the rising teams in the continent who will fancy their chances against the Kenyans.

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