Senegal players celebrate winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Yaounde

Sadio Mane-inspired Senegal will begin their Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title defence at home to Benin during June, according to the 2023 qualifying calendar released by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). 

Senegal will also visit Rwanda during June, face Mozambique at home and away in September, and play return matches against Benin and Rwanda in March 2023.

Winners and runners-up in 12 four-team groups qualify for the finals at six venues in the Ivory Coast on dates to be announced during June and July next year.

The Teranga Lions of Senegal last met the Squirrels of Benin in a 2019 Cup of Nations quarter-final in Egypt and won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Idrissa Gueye.

Before a ball is kicked in 2023 qualifying, Senegal will be among the favourites to go all the way and lift the trophy that symbolises national team supremacy in Africa.

Liverpool sharpshooter Mane is part of a powerful spine that includes Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly and Gueye.

However, history suggests it will not be easy for the Senegalese to win back-to-back titles with the previous five champions -- Zambia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Algeria -- all failing to do so.

CAF have changed the order of play from recent qualifying competitions when first and second seeds met in the second and sixth rounds.

- Eagerly anticipated -

Now, the first seeds host the second seeds in the opening round, and the nations meet again in the penultimate series of matches next March.  

One of the most eagerly anticipated matchday 1 fixtures will be that between hosts Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

The countries also met during 2021 Cup of Nations qualifying and the Leone Stars staged a magnificent comeback from four goals behind to draw 4-4 in Benin City.

Goals from Alex Iwobi (two), Victor Osimhen and Samuel Chikwueze gave the Super Eagles a 4-0 lead after just 29 minutes.

A humiliating rout of Sierra Leone seemed on the cards, even after Kwame Quee pulled one goal back for the visitors before half-time.

Then, in a sensational climax, Alhaji Kamara netted twice and Mustapha Bundu once within 14 minutes to pull off the greatest comeback in Cup of Nations qualifying.

Nigeria and Sierra Leone are in Group A with Guinea-Bissau, seeking a fourth straight appearance at the finals, and either Sao Tome e Principe or Mauritius.

Bolivia-based Luis Leal scored twice as Sao Tome edged Mauritius 4-3 on aggregate in a two-leg preliminary tie last month.

But Mauritius want the Sao Tomeans disqualified, claiming Leal did not follow Covid-19 protocols, and have lodged an appeal with CAF.