A Cote d’Ivoire team lacking superstar Yaya Toure launches this weekend what they hope will be a 10-match climb back to the pinnacle of African football.
The Africa Cup of Nations title-holders have a Group I date with fellow-west Africans Sierra Leone in a fixture switched from Freetown to Nigerian city, Port Harcourt because of the Ebola epidemic.
It will be the first of four qualifying games for the ‘Elephants’ as they seek to top the table and secure a place at the 2017 tournament in Gabon.
Cote d’Ivoire had a matchday 1 bye last June in a three-team mini-league completed by Sudan.
New France-born Cote d’Ivoire coach Michel Dussuyer must do without Manchester City stars Toure and Wilfried Bony plus Newcastle United midfield enforcer Cheick Tiote.
National team captain Toure, voted African Footballer of the Year a record four consecutive times since 2011, asked to be excluded while he considers his international future.
Now 32, the midfielder who specialises in turning edge-of-the-box free-kicks into goals suffered a dip in form when he returned last February from the triumphant 2015 Africa Cup of Nations Cup campaign in Equatorial Guinea.
Dussuyer, a former goalkeeper who guided Guinea to the Cup of Nations quarter-finals this year before quitting, hopes Toure is taking only a temporary break.
“I met Yaya in London and said I was counting on him to continue,” said the successor to compatriot Herve Renard.
“He is a great footballer and I hope he is going to resume his adventure with the ‘Elephants’.”
Burly striker Bony is injured and Dussuyer says Tiote did not respond after various attempts were made to contact him.
The Cote d’Ivoire coach will be pleased by the recent UEFA Champions League form of Seydou Doumbia with CSKA Moscow. On loan to his former club from Roma, the striker scored twice during a dramatic play-off triumph over Sporting Lisbon that secured a group place.
Ghana-born Sierra Leone caretaker coach Sellas Tetteh does not believe the absence of Toure will weaken the two-time African champions.
“The absence of Yaya will not make our task easier,” said the coach who guided Ghana to 2009 world youth championship glory and had a short spell in charge of Rwanda.
“I recently inherited a Sierra Leone squad with low morale after several losses. My immediate task is to restore confidence and end the run of defeats.”
Cote d’Ivoire defeated Sierra Leone 2-1 and 5-1 in 2015 Cup of Nations qualifiers with both matches staged in Abidjan because of the Ebola virus.
In-form Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez travels to Lesotho with Algeria, the top ranked African team who will expect three more Group J points after overwhelming Seychelles three months ago.
Mahrez bagged four goals in his first three English Premier League matches and Dinamo Zagreb striker El-Arbi Hillel Soudani is another impressive Europe-based ‘Desert Fox’.
Ghana midfielder Andre Ayew hopes he can replicate his three-goal form with Swansea City in a top-of-the-table Group H clash away to Rwanda. Ayew missed the 7-1 mauling of Mauritius while Rwanda created a matchday 1 shock under 30-year-old Northern Ireland-born coach Johnny McKinstry by winning in Mozambique.
Nigeria begin life under former star Sunday Oliseh away to Tanzania in Group G without Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, who did not answer calls from the new coach.
Record seven-time African champions Egypt are in the same mini-league and hope cloudy midweek weather in often scorchingly hot Chad continues as they seek a return to the big time after three failed qualifying campaigns.
Group M outsiders Gambia and Mauritania must be encouraged by matchday 1 displays as they prepare to host former African champions Cameroon and South Africa respectively.
Gambia forced a 0-0 draw in South Africa under new Swiss coach Raoul Savoy and Mauritania held Cameroon goalless in Yaounde until Vincent Aboubakar snatched a final-minute match-winner.
Minnows Swaziland caused the biggest matchday 1 upset by winning away to Guinea and will bank on more goals from experienced midfielder Tony Tsabedze when they host pointless Malawi.
The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations line-up will comprise the 13 group winners, the best two runners-up and hosts Gabon.
5.9.2015 16H00 Monrovia Liberia vs Tunisia
4.9.2015 16H00 Djibouti Dijibouti vs Togo
6.9.2015 15H00 Bangui Central Africa Rep vs DR Congo
6.9.2015 14H30 Antananarivo Madagascar vs Angola
6.9.2015 16H00 Cotonou Benin vs Mali
5.9.2015 16H30 Juba South Sudan vs Equatorial Guinea
5.9.2015 16H00 Francistown Botswana vs Burkina Faso
5.9.2015 15H00 Mitsamiouli Comoros vs Uganda
6.9.2015 16H00 Nairobi Kenya vs Zambia
5.9.2015 16H00 Bissau Guinea Bissau vs Congo
6.9.2015 19H00 Cairo Libya vs Cape Verde
5.9.2015 15H30 Sao Tome Sao Tome vs Morocco
5.9.2015 16H30 Dar es Salaam Tanzania vs Nigeria
6.9.2015 15H30 N’Djamena Chad vs Egypt
5.9.2015 15H30 Kigali Rwanda vs Ghana
6.9.2015 15H00 Curepipe Mauritius vs Mozambique
6.9.2015 16H00 Port Harcourt Sierra Leone vs Cote d’Ivoire
5.9.2015 18H00 Libreville Gabon vs Sudan
6.9.2015 15H00 Maseru Lesotho vs Algeria
5.9.2015 16H30 Victoria Sechelles vs Ethiopia
5.9.2015 14H30 Windhoek Namibia vs Senegal
5.9.2015 15H30 Bujumbura Burundi vs Niger
5.9.2015 15H00 Harare Zimbabwe vs Guinea
6.9.2015 15H00 Lobamba Swaziland vs Malawi
6.9.2015 16H30 Bakau Gambia vs Cameroon
5.9.2015 17H00 Nouakchott Mauritania vs South Africa