The qualifiers for the next CAF Africa Cup of Nations may have started back in June, but for the vast majority of the competitors, this weekend’s matches were their first on the road to the 2012 finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

A weekend of high drama in 21 fixtures witnessed the resignation of a coach, Guinea Bissau’s first competitive win in 14 years and a sensational hat-trick from Mamadou Niang that served notice of Senegal’s potential. There were also surprising setbacks for many of the continent’s top teams, notably defending champions Egypt, while Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia also stumbled.

Group A: The Cape Verde Islands again emphasised their status among African football’s emerging nations as Fernando Varela's strike secured a 1-0 triumph over Mali. It represented a disappointing start for new Mali coach Alain Giresse, who is trying to rebuild a team without Frederic Kanoute, who has retired from international football, and also had to cope without Seydou Keita and Momo Sissoko. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, drew 1-1 with Liberia after youngster Knowledge Musona’s opener was cancelled out by a goal from debutant Sekou Jabeth Oliseh.

Group B: Guinea beat Ethiopia 4-1 in Addis Ababa on Sunday with first half goals from Ibrahima Yattara and Oumar Kalabane and two more after the break from Karamoko Cisse and Kamil Zayatte. It was the first competitive match in charge for new coach Michel Dussuyer, who led Benin to the last Cup of Nations finals in Angola. Nigeria are still to appoint a permanent coach but caretaker Austin Eguavoen saw his side ease to a 2-0 win over Madagascar in Calabar, with Obafemi Martins and Michael Eneramo on target.

Group C: There were just two home winners in the nine qualifiers played on Sunday, with Zambia claiming one after Dario Bonetti’s first match in charge ended in a 4-0 win over newcomers the Comoros Islands. Bonetti had gambled on Rainford Kalaba, a clubless winger who has not played a competitive match since the last Cup of Nations, and Kalaba responded by setting the tone with a well-taken opener. Elsewhere, Mozambique were held to a goalless draw at home by Libya.

Group D: Algeria had to come from a goal behind against Tanzania to share the spoils in Blida, with Adlene Guedioura’s goal saving the FIFA World Cup finalists from an embarrassing defeat. It did not, however, save Rabah Saadane’s job, with the Fennecs coach quitting less than 24 hours later. Morocco, meanwhile, fielded an array of attacking talent against the Central African Republic, including Marouane Chamakh, Mounir El Hamdaoui and debutant Youssef El Arabi, but were kept at bay in a goalless draw.

Group E: Samuel Eto’o inched closer the 50-mark at international level with his 45th and 46th strikes for the Indomitable Lions in a 3-1 win over Mauritius in BelleVue. Eto’o could have scored a hat-trick but allowed Eric Choupo Moting to bag Cameroon’s third from the penalty spot. One man who did not pass up the opportunity of a treble was Mamadou Niang, who starred as Senegal claimed an impressive 4-2 away win against Congo DR.

Group F: Gambia scored three times in the opening half-hour to claim the first points of this section with a 3-1 win over visitors Namibia. With Mauritania’s withdrawal, there are just three teams in this group and favourites Burkina Faso had the weekend off.

Group G: Defending champions Egypt were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Sierra Leone in Cairo, providing a further boost for group rivals South Africa, who had beaten Niger 2-0 in their opener in Nelspruit. Alhassan Bangoura gave the Leone Stars a surprise lead, although it lasted just three minutes before Mohamed Fathallah equalised for the Pharaohs. Katlego Mphela and Bernard Parker were on target for a dominant South Africa side, who failed to convert a myriad of chances.

Group H: Gervais Yao Kouassi, Salomon Kalou and Emmanuel Eboue were all on target as Côte d’Ivoire made light work of Rwanda, whose new coach, Sellas Tetteh, was criticised for selecting a squad made up almost exclusively of local-based players. Benin, meanwhile, were expected to stroll to victory against Burundi and looked on course with a sixth-minute goal from Mickael Pote only for the visitors to equaliser five minutes from time through Didier Kavumabagu.

Group I: Ghana were unaffected by the absence of several star names as they cruised to a 3-0 win in Swaziland in which 18-year-old Jordan Ayew made his debut, coming on as a substitute for his elder brother, Andre. Dede Ayew opened the scoring for the Black Stars, Prince Tagoe got a second midway through the second half and Hans Sarpei grabbed his first international goal to round of the scoring. Sudan also enjoyed a winning start, with Mudather Eltaib and Mohamed Tahir on target in a 2-0 win over Congo.

Group J: Guinea Bissau were playing their first international in almost three years but showed no signs of rustiness as they upset Kenya 1-0. New coach Norton de Matos dipped into the Diaspora to produce a strong side whose victory was secured 14 minutes from time by Nichi, who plays for Fatima in Portugal’s second division. Angola, meanwhile, stuggled badly in their first competitive match under Herve Renard as Ugranda racked up a 3-0 win with goals from David Obua, Andrew Mwesigwa and Geoffrey Sserunkuma.

Group K: Four rounds of matches have already been played in this five-team group and Botswana are dominant. This is the only group where the top two teams qualify, so despite another home setback – a 2-2 draw against Malawi - all is not lost for Tunisia. Nonetheless, Botswana now find themselves six points clear after beating Togo 2-1, with Jerome Ramatlhakwane netting the winner.