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.

Central African Republic, one of 10 countries who have never qualified for the finals, drew level with Angola on points after beating Madagascar 3-0 in Antananarivo.

South Sudan, ranked 165th in the world, are Africa’s youngest footballing nation, joining FIFAs ranks in 2012, and had only won two previous away matches.

But they shocked Congo 2-1 in Brazzaville despite having Peter Manyang red-carded soon after Peter Chol had given the visitors a second half lead.

Thievy Bifouma equalised from a penalty in the last minute of regular time only for Tito Okello, born in a Kenyan refugee camp, to put South Sudan ahead again six minutes into added time.

Mali top Group ‘G’ with six points while Congo, Gambia and South Sudan have three each. The South Sudanese are another side seek­ing a first finals appe­arance.

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’.

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’.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023

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