On Saturday, Africa started the final round of its Cup of Nations elimination tournament, a process trying determine the 15 nations that will join South Africa at January’s continental championship. This cycle, however, there’s a twist. Whereas recent qualifying tournaments have been waged with a typical group play format, there was no time of that this year. Africa is switching from holding its championship in even years to odd. Since there was only one year between last year’s finals in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea a next year’s in South Africa, operation “let’s just get 15 teams qualified, okay” went into effect.
Thirty nations are left, paired off into home-and-homes to decide who qualifies. Return legs are on Oct. 12.
- Cote d’Ivoire versus Senegal was the headline matchup, and true to the teams’ immense attacking talent, we got a shootout. The Ivorians got goals from Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, Didier Drogba and Max Gradel to win 4-2, coming back from a 2-1 deficit after the first hour to a take lead into next month’s leg in Dakar.
- Ghana had no trouble with visiting Malawi, getting goals at the beginning of each half to win 2-0. Twenty-year-old Christian Atsu scored his second senior-level goal.
- After missing three straight finals, Congo DR has practically punched their ticket to South Africa. Equatorial Guinea collapsed in the second half, conceded four goals, and now have to turn around a 4-0 deficit when the tie moves to Malabo.
- Algeria took a huge step toward returning to the Cup of Nations with their 1-0 win versus Libya, deprived of a home match (unrest in Libya forcing this on to be playing in Casablanca). El Arbi Hillel Soudani is up to five goals in seven international appearances after his 88th minute winner sent the Desert Foxes back to Blida with a 1-0 lead.
- Morocco looked like they were going to get out of Mozambique with a 0-0, but two goals allowed over the last quarter-hour send the Lions back to Casablana with a two-goal deficit.
- And Togo may be back. Emmanuel Adebayor’s late equalizer in Libreville leaves Gabon even (1-1) after their home led. It also puts both 2012 hosts on the verge of elimination (then again, all these teams are on the verge of elimination).
- The trip to Sierre Leone could have been tricky for Tunisia, but getting an 87th minute equalizer from Esperance attacker Youssef Msakni two minutes after going down 2-1, the Eagles escape their road leg even.
- Cape Verde has never qualified for the Cup of Nations, but up 2-0 over Cameroon, they’re on the verge of doing so at the expense of a continental power. But is it fair to give the “continental power” label to the Indomitable Lions? If they fail to turn this result around in Yaoundé, they’ll miss their second successive finals.
- Per the seeding system used during the draw (based on past Cup of Nations results), Zimbabwe was among the worst teams in the field. Angola was seventh, yet on Saturday in Harare, Zimbabwe was up 3-0 after 35 minutes. Angola pulled one back in the second half but face a 3-1 deficit ahead of the second leg in Luanda.
- Cup of Nations holders Zambia could only manage a 1-0 result at home against Uganda, a team that hasn’t competed at the African championships since 1978.
- Sudan got two late goals from Muhannad Tenir (one from the spot in stoppage time) to pull away from Sudan, 5-3. The only question, with the venue switching to Addis Abada, is how we could possibly replicate this eight-goal slugfest in the decider.
- Burkina Faso shouldn’t have any problem with Central Africa Republic next month, but losing 1-0 in Bangui puts a team that’s scored three goals in their last five Cup of Nations contests in a precarious position, particularly should they give up an early one in Ouagadougou.
- After the match, Nigeria complained about Liberia’s preceived desperation tactics – putting the visitors in shoddy hotel rooms, generally giving them an international soccer welcome. But Nigeria left Paynesville with a result they can handle: 2-2.
Mali 3-0 Botswana; Zimbabwe 3-1 Angola; Ghana 2-0 Malawi; Liberia 2-2 Nigeria; Zambia 1-0 Uganda; Cape Verde 2-0 Cameroon; Mozambique 2-0 Morocco; Sierra Leona 2-2 Tunisia; Guinea 1-0 Niger; Sudan 5-3 Ethiopia; Libya 0-1 Algeria; Cote d’Ivoire 4-2 Senegal; Congo DR 4-0 Equatorial Guinea; Gabon 1-1 Togo; Central African Republic 1-0 Burkina Faso
Among the power only Cameroon has put themselves in a bind ahead of next month’s deciders, yet enough big names are in danger that we could still be looking at a second big derailing come October. Ghana and Zambia have left themselves in harm’s way after home legs, and although Cote d’Ivoire is coming off a Cup of Nations where they didn’t allow a goal, a jaded fan could look at the two conceded in Abdjan and see more disappointment awaiting Les Elephants.