Johannesburg (AFP) – Tottenham Hotspur full-back Serge Aurier scored once and created the other two goals as the Ivory Coast swept aside Niger 3-0 Friday to secure 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualification.
Morocco also booked a place at the tournament in Cameroon next January, raising to 16 the number of confirmed qualifiers for the 24-team event.
The other eight places will be up for grabs from Saturday, when matchday 5 concludes, until the closing matchday 6 fixtures on Tuesday.
Aurier was among four Premier League stars in the Ivorian line-up and he put the two-time African champions ahead on 25 minutes in a Niamey stadium empty because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The defender then set up Max Gradel to double the lead nine minutes later and killed off any hopes of a Nigerien comeback with the assist as Wilfried Kanon netted on the hour.
Securing maximum points in the heart of west Africa assured the Ivory Coast a top-two finish in Group K, leaving Ethiopia and Madagascar to fight for the other place.
Ethiopia hold a two-point advantage over surprise 2019 quarter-finalists Madagascar but have a tough last fixture, away to the Ivorians, while their rivals host Niger.
Morocco, whose lone Cup of Nations triumph came 45 years ago, were assured of qualification before drawing 0-0 with Mauritania in Nouakchott after Burundi and the Central African Republic drew 2-2 in Bujumbura.
While the Moroccans can celebrate, Mauritania (six points), Burundi (five) and the C.A.R. (four) are in contention to finish as Group E runners-up.
If the C.A.R. can beat Mauritania in Bangui they will join the Comoros and the Gambia as first-time qualifiers, unless Burundi pull off a shock victory in Morocco.
– Burundi hit back –
C.A.R. looked set for all three points when Louis Mafouta scored in each half before a Burundian comeback climaxed on 80 minutes when Christophe Nduwarugira equalised.
Guinea-Bissau stayed in contention to accompany Senegal from Group I with a 3-1 victory over Eswatini in Manzini, where ‘Pele’ — the nickname of Judilson Gomes — was among the goals for the winners.
Success lifted Guinea-Bissau to six points, two fewer than Congo Brazzaville, but they will enjoy home advantage when the teams meet next week.
Congo did well to contain Liverpool star Sadio Mane in Brazzaville, but needed a win to qualify, rather than the 0-0 draw they had to settle for.
Cameroon failed to defend an early lead given to them by Pierre Kunde and suffered a first loss in Group F as Cape Verde stormed back to win 3-1 in Praia and rise to second.
Guaranteed a place at the finals as hosts, the Cameroonians were included in the group stage to gain competitive match practice.
Despite the loss, the Indomitable Lions are likely to retain first place after hosting Rwanda, while Cape Verde take a three-point lead over Mozambique to Maputo for a match to decide second.
Apart from Cameroon, the qualifiers to date are defending champions Algeria, Burkina Faso, Comoros, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.
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