The third round of fixtures for the 2012 African Cup of Nations qualifiers held over the weekend and on Monday provided much entertainment for African football fans. The qualifiers for the showpiece event, to be held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, have so far provided notable shocks and upsets, while certain countries also appear to be going through the motions to qualify for next year’s finals.
On Saturday, Botswana became the first country to qualify for the tournament proper when they travelled away to beat bottom-of-the-group Chad by a lone goal in Ndjamena. The victory sees the Zebras secure their first ever appearance at a Nations Cup finals. This means there is one more nation yet to qualify from Group K, which is the only one from which two teams will qualify. The remaining spot is seemingly being contested by Malawi and Tunisia, after Malawi moved to second place with a one-nil victory over Togo. Tunisia will look to revive their hopes of qualification after slipping to third when they play Malawi in September.
Again, as has been the theme throughout this qualification campaign, holders Egypt were in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The Pharaohs remain firmly bottom of the group with only one point after losing out to a last-minute goal against South Africa in Johannesburg. Bafana Bafana are now in pole position to qualify, while with their 3-1 comeback win over Sierra Leone, Niger now occupy second spot. Cape Verde, in Group A, also continued to impress with a comfortable 4-2 victory over Liberia and as a result, are in the driving seat for a first ever appearance at a Nations Cup finals. Mali, however, seem to have revived their hopes of qualification after moving into second place behind Cape Verde with a narrow one-nil win over Zimbabwe in Bamako.
Elsewhere, the Lions of Senegal held their own at home by overcoming Cameroon courtesy of a Demba Ba strike. The result means Senegal have collected maximum points from their three fixtures, and leaves Cameroon in third after DR Congo leapfrogged them into second with a convincing 3-0 win over Mauritius. Another team to have collected all nine points are Ivory Coast, who managed to come out on top 2-1 against fellow West Africans Benin in Accra despite an early scare when Benin took the lead. The win, courtesy of a brace from Didier Drogba, puts the Elephants five points clear at the top with Benin in second, while Rwanda recorded their first win of this qualifying campaign with a 3-1 victory against Burundi in Kigali leaving them third in the group.
After a goalless draw with Sudan at home last time out, the Black Stars of Ghana returned to winning ways with a crucial but easy 3-0 away victory over Congo Brazzaville to move top of the group on goal difference. Sudan, level on points with Ghana, saw off Swaziland also with a 3-0 win to maintain their record of not conceding in these qualifiers. The third straight loss for Swaziland meant they remained bottom.
Another side to return to winning ways were Nigeria who recorded an emphatic 4-0 victory over Ethiopia following a brace each from Peter Utaka and Ike Uche. Nigeria, however, are still only in second place, a point behind leaders Guinea who only just about managed a one-all draw away to a Madagascar side who were down to ten men early in the second half.
On Monday in the final qualifier for this round, Libya saw off Comoros with a comfortable 3-0 ‘home’ win in Bamako. Despite the political situation in Libya meaning they had to play their home match away in Mali, the Greens won the game convincingly to reclaim top spot in the group after a precious 2-0 away win by Zambia over Mozambique had temporarily put the Chipolopolo top of the group on Sunday. Comoros are bottom of the group and without a point. Elsewhere, the Cranes of Uganda continued their impressive form in this qualifying campaign edging Guinea Bissau by a lone goal in Bissau to remain top of the group. Guinea Bissau did miss a penalty in the game and are thus on three points in third, level with bottom-of-the-table Angola who succumbed to a 2-1 loss at the hands of Kenya.
One group which has remained open right from the outset, and is still surprisingly open, is that which includes the Central African Republic, Tanzania, Morocco and Algeria. The weekend’s matches ended with Tanzania coming from behind in front of a home crowd to win 2-1 against the Central African Republic while Algeria also triumphed at home 1-0 against Morocco. Surprisingly, the Central African Republic top the group on goal difference, followed by Tanzania, Morocco and Algeria in that order, but the group is still anyone’s for the taking. Group F meanwhile is the only group with three teams since Mauritania withdrew from the qualifiers. The one match played over the weekend saw Burkina Faso dominate Namibia in a 4-0 trouncing in Ouagadougou. This leaves the Burkinabe top with a maximum six points from their two games while Gambia come in second with three points and then Namibia, who are yet to pick up any.
This round’s qualifying matches proved as entertaining as any others with the plot thickening as to which nations will join Gabon and Equatorial Guinea next year. For Botswana though, that is no longer a mystery as they have firmly booked their place while it is looking increasingly likely that the likes of Ivory Coast and Senegal should be involved. For others like Nigeria and Ghana, nothing is certain, while surprise packages Cape Verde and Guinea can cause an upset. South Africa will be very pleased with their win over Egypt, perhaps an indication that Bafana Bafana have turned the corner and are set to return to the summit of African football. It, however, does not look good for Egypt and Cameroon, who may need a miracle to qualify. Thus, at the halfway stage of the Nations Cup qualifiers, the groups are finely poised for even more entertaining fare come the next round.