CAPE TOWN - Winning starts for former Premier League managers Avram Grant and Chris Hughton marked Thursday’s round of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, but it was upstarts South Sudan who stole the spotlight with a shock victory.
Grant, who was Chelsea manager when they reached the 2008 Champions League final, saw his Zambia side come back after conceding first to beat Lesotho 3-1 in Ndola and go top of Group H, strengthening their chances of qualifying for next year’s finals after missing out on the last three tournaments.
It was the 68-year-old Israeli’s first game in charge of Zambia, after signing a two-year contract in December, and Lameck Banda scored twice to give him a winning start.
Antoine Semenyo rammed home from close range with virtually the last kick of the game to earn Ghana a 1-0 home victory over Angola in the first game in charge for Hughton, the former Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United boss.
Semenyo had come on as substitute in Kumasi and shot Ghana into a three-point lead over Angola in Group E in the Black Stars’ first game since last year’s World Cup, where Hughton had worked as an advisor before taking over as coach from Otto Addo after the tournament.
Tito Okello, born in a Kenyan refugee camp, netted six minutes into stoppage time as South Sudan won 2-1 away to Congo in Brazzaville to collect their first points in Group G.
South Sudan, ranked 165th in the world, are Africa’s youngest footballing nation, joining FIFA’s ranks in 2012, and had only won two previous away matches.
Central African Republic also recorded a rare away win as they beat Madagascar 3-0 in Antananarivo with French-based striker Louis Mafouta scoring twice.
Riyad Mahrez snatched a last-minute winner as hosts Algeria came from behind to beat Niger 2-1 in Group F, keep up their 100% record in qualifying and move to the brink of qualification.
Lloyd Palun’s second-half goal secured Gabon a 1-0 win over Sudan 1-0 in Franceville to move top of Group I.
Fourteen matches will be played on Friday to bring the qualifying campaign to the halfway point.
The top two teams in each of the 12 groups go through to the finals in the Ivory Coast next January, apart from Group H which includes the hosts of the 24-team finals who have already qualified for the tournament. Only one side will advance from Group H.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)