Madagascar reached its first African Cup of Nations on Tuesday, also becoming the first team to qualify for next year’s continental championship.
Senegal and Egypt soon sealed their spots as well, despite playing without injured stars Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
This was Madagascar’s 20th attempt at qualifying for the African Cup. After nearly 50 years of failures, the island nation finally succeeded courtesy of Njiva Rakotoharimalala’s goal, which gave Madagascar a 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea at home in Antananarivo. The team won three of its first four qualifiers and held Senegal to a 2-2 draw in the other.
Madagascar was one of four teams to make it through Tuesday to an expanded Cup of Nations, which will have 24 teams next year, up from the usual 16. The tournament is supposed to be hosted by Cameroon next June and July but could still be moved because of poor preparations and an uncertain security situation in that country.
Cameroon qualifies automatically as host even if the tournament is ultimately taken away from it. The remaining 19 places will be decided in the final two rounds of qualifiers in November and March.
SENEGAL, EGYPT ALSO THROUGH
The absence of Mane for Senegal and Salah for Egypt was quickly forgotten as they also qualified. Senegal went through alongside Madagascar in Group A after Sidy Sarr’s late header secured a 1-0 win in Sudan. Sarr’s 86th-minute goal was his first for his country. Liverpool forward Mane didn’t play after fracturing a bone in his left hand in the home game against Sudan on Saturday.
Salah was also missing for Egypt after getting injured last week in a 4-1 win over Swaziland. Without him, the Egyptians won 2-0 in Swaziland with goals in each half by Ahmed Hegazi and Marwan Mohsen.
Tunisia also booked a place alongside Egypt from Group J with a 2-1 victory in Niger.
AFRICAN MISADVENTURE FOR LIVERPOOL
After Mane and Salah, Naby Keita was the third Liverpool player to be hurt while on international duty in Africa when he went off at halftime with a leg injury in Guinea’s 1-1 draw with Rwanda. Salah is already back in England with a leg muscle injury.
NIGERIA NEARLY THERE
Striker Odion Ighalo is almost single-handedly driving Nigeria to the Cup of Nations. He scored another two goals against Libya, including the 81st-minute winner, in a 3-2 victory. Ighalo scored a hat trick in the 4-0 home win over Libya on Saturday. Nigeria needs one victory from its last two games, away to South Africa and at home to Seychelles, to qualify.
Libya is still in contention after South Africa was held 0-0 by Seychelles on Tuesday. If Libya can beat Seychelles away next month it will set up a showdown with South Africa for the second qualifying place from Group E.
Libya has not played a game on home soil for five years because of its civil war, and have staged its qualifiers instead in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, often in empty stadiums.
Associated Press writer Ken Maguire in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
Source: The Associated Press