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Egypt get ball rolling as Africa prepares for World Cup

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Egypt’s midfielder Mohamed Elneny (C) celebrates scoring the first goal of the match with team mates Ahmed Elmohamady (L) and Mohamed Salah during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final football match between Egypt and Cameroon on February 5, 2017

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, May 25 – Egypt face Kuwait Saturday in the first of 15 warm-up matches the five African qualifiers for the World Cup will play ahead of the June 14 kick-off in Russia.

The Egyptians, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia have three fixtures each to iron out chinks in their armour and fine-tune tactics ahead of the global football showpiece.

Egypt must do without talisman Mohamed Salah in Kuwait City as he will be playing for Liverpool against title-holders Real Madrid the same day in the UEFA Champions League final.

Another potential World Cup star, Sadio Mane of Senegal, will also be in Liverpool colours as they try to prevent Real winning a third consecutive Champions League title.

After Kuwait, an Egyptian squad coached by Argentine Hector Cuper head for Europe to meet Colombia in Milan and star-stacked Belgium in Brussels

Eight-goal El Kaabi is the runaway leading scorer in the tournament restricted to footballers playing in their country of birth, with his nearest rivals five behind.

Morocco, back at the World Cup after a 20-year absence, tackle non-World Cup qualifiers Ukraine and Slovakia in Swiss city Geneva before taking on Estonia in Tallinn.

Nigeria are the only African qualifiers to play a warm-up in the continent, hosting the Democratic Republic of Congo in Port Harcourt this Monday.

The ‘Super Eagles’ then face England at Wembley and the Czech Republic in Austria before heading for Russia, the first east European hosts of the World Cup.

Senegal, making a second appearance after reaching the 2002 quarter-finals, play in Luxembourg and Croatia before meeting South Korea behind closed doors at an Austrian venue to be announced.

Tunisia, without a World Cup win in 14 matches since beating Mexico in 1978, are away to European champions Portugal before meeting Turkey in Switzerland and Spain in Russia.

The five African qualifiers are returning to action for the first time since March when they experienced mixed results playing two friendlies each.

Egypt fell 2-1 to Portugal after Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in stoppage time and a much-changed team went down 1-0 to Greece.

Morocco overcame Serbia 2-1 in Italy, then returned home to achieve a routine 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan.

Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi celebrates scoring Nigeria’s fourth goal against Argentina. PHOTO/DM

Nigeria showed the inconsistency that often dogs African teams at the World Cup as they triumphed 1-0 in Poland before performing poorly in a 2-0 defeat by Serbia in London.

Senegal drew twice at neutral venues, 1-1 against Uzbekistan in Morocco and 0-0 with Bosnia and Herzogovina in France.

Tunisia matched Morocco by winning twice, edging fellow qualifiers Iran and Costa Rice by 1-0 scorelines.

No African qualifiers have gone beyond the World Cup quarter-finals and none of the Russia-bound quintet have been seeded to even reach the round of 16.

Egypt are ranked third behind the hosts and Uruguay in Group A, which Saudi Arabia completes, and their clash with Russia will likely decide who progresses with the South Americans.

Sadio Mane celebrates after scoring Senegal’s first goal from the penalty spot against Tunisia in an African Cup of Nations match in Franceville, Gabon, on january 15, 2017. PHOTO/AFP

Bottom seeds Morocco are in Group B with Spain, Portugal and Iran and well organised though they are under French coach Herve Renard, will probably have to beat one of the European sides to survive.

While many pundits believe Nigeria can go far, they have already last four World Cup clashes with Group D favourites Argentina and Croatia and Iceland are unlikely to be pushovers.

If Robert Lewandowski-inspired Poland justify being Group H top seeds, the result between Senegal and Colombia could decide the second qualifiers with Japan outsiders.

Few neutrals are giving third seeds Tunisia or Panama any hope in Group G with Belgium and England firm favourites to go through.

In the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil, Algeria and Nigeria made the second round before losing to eventual champions Germany and France respectively.

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