JOHANNESBURG: Senegal were the first team to advance to the final World Cup playoffs in Africa after Famara Diedhiou’s hat-trick secured a 3-1 win over Namibia on Tuesday.

Morocco followed about six hours later by beating Guinea 4-1 in what was a third game in seven days for both. Ayoub el-Kaabi netted the opener for Morocco for his fourth goal in three games.

Liverpool star Sadio Mane provided the crosses for Diedhiou’s first and third goals at Orlando Stadium in South Africa and Senegal’s fourth win from four games ensured top spot in Group ‘H’ with two games still to play.

It earned Senegal a place in the decisive playoffs in March, which will decide Africa’s five teams at the World Cup in Qatar at the end of next year.

Namibia were forced to stage the fixture in Soweto near Johannesburg because they lack an international-standard stadium.

Togo surprised hosts Congo Brazzaville 2-1 in the same section to rise from last to second, eight points adrift of two-time World Cup qualifiers Senegal.

Morocco matched Senegal by going through with two games to spare in Group ‘I’.

The Moroccans and Guineans had to play one extra game this international window to make up for their fixture that was postponed last month because of the coup in Guinea.

Selim Amallah scored twice as Morocco took advantage of playing an away match at home in Rabat after El Kaabi gave them an early lead. Sofiane Boufal scored the fourth for the north African side in the last minute.

FIFA considers Guinea unsafe after a military coup toppled President Alpha Conde while no stadium in Guinea-Bissau or Sudan, the other two nations in the group,is deemed fit for international football.

Also on track for the playoffs, although not quite there, are African champions Algeria, who trounced Niger 4-0 to regain first place in Group ‘A’ from Burkina Faso on goal difference with the two countries set for a showdown next month.

Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez triggered the rout with a goal midway through the first half. Aissa Mandi doubled the lead before half-time.

Niger fell four goals behind within nine minutes of the restart as AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer and Baghdad Bounedjah netted.

South Africa clung to a one-point Group ‘G’ lead over Ghana after both claimed 1-0 victories, over Ethiopia and Zimbabwe respectively.

Ethiopia captain Getaneh Kebede miscued an attempted clearance at a corner and sliced the ball into his own net at Soccer City in Johannesburg, where 2,000 spectators were allowed to watch the game. They were the first fans at any South African sporting event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africa are now on 10 points with Ghana one behind after Thomas Partey hammered home a thunderous free kick to secure a 1-0 victory against Zimbabwe in Harare.

South Africa travel to Ghana for their last qualifier next month.

The other eight places in the play-offs will be decided during the final two matchdays between Nov 10-16.

Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali and Egypt all top their groups and are on course to progress. Tanzania, who have never been to the World Cup, narrowly leads Group ‘J’ on goals scored ahead of Benin, who also have never been to football’s showpiece.

A seeded draw will split the 10 group table-toppers into five pairings with the winners of the two-leg ties representing Africa at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2021

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