Defending champions Egypt made sure of a record extending number of CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals appearances, but it was Mali who stole the plaudits as the final three places at Ghana 2008 were claimed on Friday and Saturday.
|Egypt's Mohamd Abo Traka (L) (Photo: AFP)|
Mali's 2-0 away win over 2006 FIFA World Cup™ participants Togo ensured they finished top of Group 9 and allowed minnows Benin the opportunity to sneak in and take second place in the pool and, consequently, grab one of the three finals berths reserved for the best runners-up in the preliminaries.
Benin won 2-0 away in Sierra Leone to progress to only their second finals tournament, while Egypt are headed for their 21st after a 1-0 home win over Botswana. The Pharaohs needed only to avoid defeat by their visitors in Cairo to make sure and although their supporters were hoping for a grand finale to their qualifying campaign, it took a goal 12 minutes from time to snatch them a face-saving victory.
Heroes emerge in final round
Mali's win ended Togo's hopes of qualifying of the finals, which are being hosted by their neighbours. Going into their clash, the rivals were level on points at the head of the section but with home advantage and their prodigal son Emmanuel Adebayor back in the starting line-up, Togo were the favourites to book a trip to Ghana. However, a sell-out crowd sat in growing silence as Frederic Kanoute gave the visitors a first half lead and Mamadou Diallo sealed a 2-0 success for Mali late in the game.
Benin's Portuguese-based striker Oumar Tchomogo got both their goals as they edged into the continent's showpiece event as one of the best runners-up. They joined 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hosts South Africa and Tunisia as one of three sides to qualify without winning their group.
Benin needed the three points to go through at Uganda's expense and despite being forced to weather some early pressure from Sierra Leone, they never looked like faltering in their bid and now return to the Africa Cup of Nations finals for the second time since their debut appearance in Tunisia in 2004.
Tchomogo, from Vitoria Guimaraes, scored the first in the eighth minute and added a second in the 65th minute. Ironically, the striker had also been the catalyst in Benin's qualification for the 2004 finals when he finished as their leading marksman in qualifying. "I wanted to give as much as I possible could to make sure we won," Tchomogo told reporters after the game.
Substitute Mohamed Fadl was the hero for Egypt on Saturday evening, netting a late header to ensure the African champions won their group by five points. Not that Hassan Shehata's side had it all their own way as they struggled to create chances against a resolute Botswana. Nevertheless, Fadl entered the fray ten minutes after the interval and although he had to wait until 12 minutes from time for his first chance on goal, he made no mistake when it arrived, scoring with a low header from Zaki's flick-on.
Mauritania beat Burundi 2-1 in Nouakchott on Saturday to finish second in the group, ahead of both Burundi and Botswana on goal difference. It was Mauritania's best-ever finish in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualification campaign, although it was still insufficient to bank them a place at Ghana 2008.