Ghana, Nigeria stroll as Egypt held

An opening-round curse struck Egypt again Sunday when they were held 1-1 at home by unfancied Sierra Leone in a 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.

The defending champions were rocked on 56 minutes at Cairo Stadium when Turkey-based defensive midfielder Alhassan Bangura edged the plucky west Africans in front. Defender Mahmoud Fathallah completed a pair of unlikely scorers when he equalised four minutes later, but a winning goal eluded Egypt who began with six of the team that defeated Ghana in the 2010 Cup of Nations final.

Coach Hassan Shehata had warned his team about the perils of not making a winning start, blaming their failure to reach the FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa this year on a home draw with Zambia in the first qualifier. Egypt are ranked number one in Africa with Sierra Leone 36 and the visitors lacked their best known footballer, China-based playmaker Mohamed Kallon, who is injured.

2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana were rarely pressed when cruising to a 3-0 victory over Swaziland in front of a small crowd that included King Mswati at Somhlolo Stadium outside Mbabane. Andre Ayew, a son of African legend Abedi 'Pele' Ayew, gave the Black Stars a 13th-minute lead and after withstanding some early second-half pressure from the Swazis there were further goals by Prince Tagoe and Hans Sarpei. Ghana achieved maximum points without big-name midfielders Michael Essien (rested) of Chelsea, Sulley Muntari (dropped) of Inter Milan and long-serving captain Stephen Appiah (retired) of Cesena.

Nigeria, who made a humiliating first round exit from the 2010 FIFA World Cup with a solitary point from three matches, were too slick for hard-working Madagascar in the coastal city of Calabar and a 2-0 win did not reflect their superiority. The Super Eagles took the lead midway through the half when Obafemi Martins darted on to a wayward Malagasy header and fired in off the far post. Martins was the architect of the other goal in first-half stoppage time as he raced in from the left and cut the ball back for Eneramo to tap the ball past goalkeeper Kandy Rambelomasina.

Teranga Lions impress
Senegal hinted that the glory days of 2002 could be returning with a shock 4-2 victory over a Democratic Republic of Congo team with serious defensive defects having conceded six to Egypt in a warm-up. Turkey-based Mamadou Niang was the hat-trick star for the Teranga Lions after Moussa Sow had given them an early lead while Patou Kabangu hit both goals for the Leopards who trailed 3-1 at half-time. Inspired by peroxide blond El-Hadji Diouf, the Senegalese reached the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals eight years ago after finishing runners-up to Cameroon in the Nations Cup but failed to qualify for the 2010 African tournament.

Zambia boasted the widest winning margin, outclassing international rookies Comoros Islands 4-0 in Lusaka. Comoros, a group of islands off south-east Africa and competing in the qualifiers for only the second time, admitted before the game that they had little hope. Their defensive resistance lasted just five minutes before Rainford Kalaba gave Chipolopolo a lead that Fwayo Tembo and James Chamanga added to before half-time. Zambia found it more difficult to carve openings in the second half and supporters had to wait until seven minutes before full time to add to their tally, with Emmanuel Mayuka completing the scoring.

The other Group C match was the only fixture not to produce a goal, featuring Mozambique and Libya in Maputo where evenly-matched teams cancelled each other out with much of the play confined to an overcrowded midfield, with the north Africans making their competitive debut under Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta.

Another new coach, Iffy Onuora, suffered a difficult debut as Ethiopia crumbled 4-1 at home to Guinea, leaving the east Africans poorly placed after the opening round. A late Cedric Amissi goal earned Burundi a surprise 1-1 draw in Benin and there was a similar score between Liberia and Zimbabwe with Sekou Jabateh equalising for the home team nine minutes from full time.

Gabon and Equatorial Guinea will co-host the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.