The second stage of African qualifying for next year’s World Cup reaches its culmination over the next week, with games taking place between Thursday and next Tuesday.

Eight teams are looking to join Morocco and Senegal in the two-legged play-offs next March, when the continent’s five representatives in Qatar will be determined.

With several players sidelined by injury, a couple returning after long absences and several countries forced to play on neutral soil, BBC Sport Africa has been taking a closer look at who can join the already-qualified Moroccans and Senegalese.

Already through

Morocco, captained by Wolves’ Romain Saiss, and Sadio Mane’s Senegal can breathe easy after securing passage though the group stage with two games to spare.

Only the eight other group winners will join them in the play-offs.

Almost there

Mohamed Salah’s Egypt have a four-point cushion over nearest challengers Libya after back-to-back victories over their north African neighbours last month.

The Pharaohs know one win from their final two matches against Angola and Gabon will take them to the third and final stage of qualifying as they bid to reach a second straight World Cup.

However, surprise package Libya could still qualify if they take maximum points in matches against the same opposition and Egypt fail to win their remaining two games.

Tunisia have a three-point lead over Equatorial Guinea in Group B, and the Carthage Eagles will guarantee passage to the play-offs with an away win against the west Africans on matchday five.

As Tunisia have a far superior goal difference, Mondher Kbaier’s side could still top the group even if they lose.

Showdowns looming

October’s results have left several groups finely poised, with six winner-takes-all showdowns possible in the final round of qualifying.

In Group A, Africa Cup of Nations holders Algeria, led by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and unbeaten in 31 matches, are ahead of Burkina Faso on goal difference alone, with the two countries meeting in north Africa after they face Djibouti and Niger respectively.

The Burkinabe, however, have lost home advantage and will face Niger in Morocco after being included on a list of countries whose home stadia were deemed unfit to host qualifiers.

Ivory Coast lead Cameroon by a point in Group D. If both countries win on matchday five, with the Ivorians ‘hosting’ Mozambique in Benin and Cameroon taking on Malawi in South Africa, the Indomitable Lions will need to beat the Elephants at home to progress.

Experienced Elephants forward Gervinho is out with a long-term injury, while Bayern Munich striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will reportedly miss Cameroon’s first game after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana could also make his first appearance for the Indomitable Lions in a year, having sat out most of 2021 because of a doping ban.

Similarly, in Group G, South Africa have a one-point advantage over Ghana with the latter, who lost 1-0 in South Africa in September, hosting Bafana Bafana in the final round.

The Black Stars travel to Johannesburg to play Ethiopia, while South Africa – chasing a first World Cup since hosting the 2010 finals – welcome Zimbabwe prior to the clash in Ghana, whose last World Cup was in 2014.

However, the Black Stars are without influential Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey, who scored in both their qualifiers against Zimbabwe last month, through injury.

Nigeria are two points in front of Cape Verde in Group C after the Super Eagles suffered a shock home defeat against Central African Republic.

Nigeria, who have lured former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo out of international retirement, play Liberia in Morocco and Cape Verde entertain CAR before the Super Eagles host the islanders in the final round of the group stage.

Mali and Uganda remain unbeaten, with the west Africans leading the Cranes by two points in Group E. Mali travel to Rwanda and Uganda welcome Kenya before the top two meet, with Mali the designated home team in Agadir.

Meanwhile, three countries are still in the hunt for top spot in Group I. Tanzania and Benin both have seven points – with the former ahead on goals scored – while DR Congo are two points adrift of the pair.

Tanzania host DR Congo, for whom veteran striker Dieumerci Mbokani is still scoring crucial goals, before an away tie in Madagascar, while Benin entertain the island nation and then travel to face the Leopards in the final round.

On the brink of an exit

Zambia (Group B), Central African Republic (Group C), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon (Group F) and Madagascar (Group J) can still mathematically reach the play-offs, but their respective fates are out of their hands.

The trio need to win their remaining two games and hope other results go their way, along with goal difference swinging in their favour.

Out of the running

Meanwhile, 17 teams have been eliminated from the running.

Angola and Togo, who both qualified for the 2006 World Cup, are among the countries who can no longer reach next year’s finals in the Middle East.

Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe were all knocked out last month.