Former champions on the ropes
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Botswana joined co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in the 16-team field for next year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations, marking the first time the southern African country have reached the continental finals. They did so by beating Chad away in Ndjamena at the weekend to make sure of one of the top two places in Group K. They also maintained an unbeaten record, a feat also matched at the weekend by Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan and Uganda.

Group A
A header from Souleymane Diamountene proved enough to give Mali a 1-0 home win over Zimbabwe in Bamako on Saturday, but coach Alain Giresse said there was still room for improvement. “We can and must do better if we are to go and play at next January’s Nations Cup finals,’ said the former French international. The Cape Verde Islands remain one point ahead in the standings as they seek a debut appearance at the finals. An emphatic 4-2 win over bottom-placed Liberia was a strong statement of intent and this group now looks likely to be decided when Mali host the former Portuguese colony in Bamako in September.

Group B
Injury kept Ike Uche out of the Nigeria team for the last year, including the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, but it took just seven minutes for him to announce his comeback on Sunday. Uche scored twice on his return to the Super Eagles’ fold as they beat Ethiopia 4-0 in Abuja. Peter Utaka got Nigeria off to the perfect start with a goal inside the first minute, adding a second in the 55th minute. He then went off for Uche, who claimed a brace of his own. “I’m very happy to come back after a long time and offer something to the team,” he said. Nigeria are one point behind Guinea, who equalised in the final five minutes of their match in Madagascar on Sunday. Substitute Mamadou Dioulde Bah ensured a vital point after the home side took a 13th-minute lead through Yvan Rajoarimanana. Guinea’s comeback came despite having Karamoko Cisse sent off early in the second half for a dangerous tackle on the Malagasy goalkeeper.

Group C
Libya will play on Monday against the Comoros Islands in neutral Bamako, the match switched from Tripoli. The 24-hour delay allowed Zambia to move from third to top in the standings after a 2-0 win over Mozambique away in Maputo on Sunday. Zambia have long held the upper-hand over their regional rivals and their winning run continued at the cavernous Machava Stadium. China-based striker James Chamanga put the visitors ahead in the 14th minute after rounding Mozambique goalkeeper Kampango, and substitute Emmanuel Mayuka made sure of the victory in the last minute with a cheeky chip over the same player.

Group D
A crowd estimated at some 80,000 crammed into the stadium in Annaba for Sunday’s much anticipated contest between Algeria and Morocco but were dished up a tepid display. Algeria's Hassan Yebda converted a penalty after just six minutes to ensure a 1-0 home win, meaning there is now a four-way tie in the group after Tanzania had won the previous day against the Central African Republic in a sensational finish to their encounter in Dar-es-Salaam. Mbwana Samata headed home a last-minute corner to make amends for a glaring miss just minutes before and ensure home celebrations. Tanzania were caught in just the second minute when Vianney Mabide scored for the Central African Republic and had to wait until the 49th minute before Shabaan Nditi equalised.

Group E
Senegal kept up their 100 per-cent record in the qualifiers, but it took an injury-time goal from Demba Ba to settle the game against Cameroon on Saturday. They move to nine points, five ahead of Cameroon, who as four-time winners are now in deep danger of missing out. It was Senegal’s first win in 21 years over the Indomitable Lions and came just when the large crowd in Dakar seemed to have given up hope. DR Congo won a first game under coach Robert Nouzaret with a routine 3-0 success over Mauritius in Kinshasa. Two of the goals came from penalties with Lomana Tresor LuaLua marking his return to the team after just five minutes from the spot, and Yves Ilunga converting in the 68th minute. In between, Zola Matumona scored just after half-time.

Group F
Alain Traore netted a hat-trick as the Burkinabe won for a second successive game and now sit top standings. They have six points in the three-team group, but they will play their last two matches away. Namibia have two home games to come but sit bottom without any points and a significantly negative goal difference. Gambia, who had the weekend off, sit on three points. Traore scored in the 25th minute and just before half-time before completing his hat-trick late in the game. There was also an own goal to add to Namibia’s agony.

Group G
Egypt are in stark danger of not being able to defend their title next year with assistant coach Shawky Gharib admitting after defeat to South Africa on Saturday: “We have less than 50 per-cent chance of qualifying. All we can do is keep trying.” The Pharaohs were the better team in the contest in Johannesburg, but, with the last kick of the game, Katlego Mphela stole in for the home nation, who now lead Niger by a single point in the standings. Anele Ngconga played through a perfect pass and the speedy Mphela ran onto it, shooting across veteran goalkeeper Essam Al Hadari and into the corner of the net. Niger shocked African football when they beat Egypt 1-0 in Niamey in October and on Sunday added the scalp of the Leone Stars. They had to come from behind after Sierra Leone’s dangerous striker Mohamed Bangoura had given the visitors the lead. Niger, who were without their key striker Moussa Maazou, fought back after half-time and scored three unanswered goals in the last 25 minutes.

Group H
Didier Drogba’s immense value to the Côte d’Ivoire team was again evidenced as he scored twice in a tougher-than-expected match with Benin in neutral Accra on Sunday. A goalkeeping error from Daniel Yeboah allowed Benin the lead, and it was only on the stroke of half-time that Drogba squeezed in the equaliser off the post and past debutant Guillaume Bemenou. After a succession of chances in the second half missed by his colleagues, Drogba headed home a 74th-minute winner. Rwanda won 3-1 in their derby against Burundi in Kigali on Saturday, but the sides still fill the bottom two places. Jean-Claude Iranzi opened the scoring in the 34th minute, but Papy Faty had Burundi level two minutes later. Elias Uzamukunda, with a penalty on the stroke of half-time, and Eric Gasana ensured Amavubi Stars were shining.

Group I
Efficiency best described the performance from Ghana as they dispatched hosts Congo in Brazzaville on Sunday. It took 20 minutes for Prince Tagoe to open the scoring and his Partizan Belgrade team-mate Dominic Adiyiah made it 2-0 with a header just before the interval. Sulley Muntari came on to score the third, rifling home in the second half. Ghana lead the standings by a single goal over Sudan. Both teams have yet to concede in the qualifiers, and Sudan had a comfortable 3-0 home win over Swaziland on Sunday. Mohamed Ahmed Bisha scored twice, and Muhamed Al Tahir got a third in stoppage time at the end of the game. Swaziland, who put coach Bizzah Mkhonta in charge just before the tie, have now lost all three of their qualifiers

Group J
Uganda’s Cranes have been threatening a return to the Nations Cup field for some time but never have they been better positioned than after Saturday’s 1-0 win in Guinea-Bissau. Denis Onyango saved a penalty and David Obua’s first half winner put the Ugandans three points clear of Kenya, who put 2010 hosts Angola into deep danger with a 2-1 win in Nairobi on Saturday. McDonald Mariga rescued Kenya but got a second yellow card when stripping off his shirt to celebrate his last-minute winner against Angola and was sent off. Kenya’s most influential payer is suspended for the return outing in Luanda in June. Manucho had given Angola an early lead but substitute Jamal Mohamed equalised.

Group K
Jerome Ramatlhakwane has not played any club football for more than a year but rattled in his fifth goal of the qualifiers just after half-time to hand Botswana a Nations Cup berth. Saturday’s 1-0 win in Ndjamena ensured a trip to the 2012 finals for the unheralded Zebras. They have 16 points from their six matches in the five-team group. Moses Chavula celebrated his recall to Malawi’s squad after a long injury lay-off with the only goal against Togo, which eliminated the Germany 2006 finalists, who had drafted Stephen Keshi back as coach for the game in the hopes of reviving their slim chances. The winner came after 18 minutes amid rainy conditions in Blantyre and after home goalkeeper Simplex Nthala had saved a penalty taken by Amewou Komlan. “I salute the boys for giving of their best,” said Malawi coach Kinnah Phiri. “With the win, we are now on course to qualify.”