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Jan 15, 2010

World Cup hopefuls suffer in Angola

It may have taken almost a week but on Thursday, the fifth day of the Nations Cup in Angola, one of Africa's World Cup qualifiers finally registered a win.

Prior to Algeria's 1-0 win over Mali in Luanda, the best result garnered by a South Africa-bound side was the goalless draw achieved by Ivory Coast against Burkina Faso on Tuesday. The Algerians had opened with a shock 3-0 defeat by minnows Malawi, Cameroon went down 1-0 to unfancied Gabon, Nigeria led, but then lost, 3-1 to defending champions Egypt, while Ghana's start to the tournament was delayed by the events in Cabinda.

After much to'ing and fro'ing, the Togolese - drawn in Group B alongside the Black Stars - quit Angola on Sunday after their bus driver, assistant coach and media officer died when separatist rebels machine-gunned their bus as they entered the country from Congo.

As a result of Togo's departure, Group B features just three games, rather than six, so a Ghana's game against the Ivorians takes on added significance, after Didier Drogba and co. could only muster a point against the Burkinabe. "We are in a difficult situation, that's a fact. But we will just have to stop whining and win this game," says Elephants coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who has not lost a competitive tie since taking charge in 2008.

While the Bosnian is seeking salvation, one coach who has already found a measure is Algeria's Rabah Saadane. The North Africans were humiliated in their opening Group A clash by Malawi's Flames, the lowest-ranked side in the competition, with Saadane blaming the defeat on the oppressive heat of an early afternoon kick-off. It meant victory against Mali in Luanda on Thursday was crucial, and it was achieved - in slightly cooler climes - thanks to central defender Rafik Halliche's 43rd-minute header.

"This win has given the perfect answer to all our critics," the Algeria coach said. "I did my calculations before, six points should be enough to qualify - and now we have three days to recover before our final first round game."

Yet the Desert Fennecs still face a challenge to qualify, realistically needing to beat hosts Angola, who went a point top of the group after beating Malawi 2-0, to make it through.

The hosts made up for Sunday's ultimately-disappointing opening day 4-4 draw against Mali, after leading 4-1 with just two minutes left, as Flavio and Manucho extinguished the Flames with struck second-half goals.

However, Malawi coach Kinnah Phiri was furious after the defeat, claiming that his team had been prevented from training in the run-up to the match. In the only group to have played two matches so far, Angola have four points, Malawi and Algeria both boast three, while Mali bring up the rear with the point they gained against the hosts. And Stephen Keshi's Malian side must now beat Malawi on Monday if they are to have any chance of staying in the competition.

Further south, Group C - which is being played in coastal Benguela - is looking good for Egypt after the six-time champions' opening day victory over Nigeria. But the Super Eagles will expect to bounce back against Benin, whom they have beaten every time they have met in the Nations Cup, when the West African rivals meet on Saturday.

"We are all disappointed about what happened against Egypt and we know it is time to step up our game to avoid early elimination," said defender Joseph Yobo.

Despite taking his nation to the World Cup, coach Amodu Shaibu is under so much pressure that Nigerian officials have admitted to holding talks with Mozambique coach Mart Nooij about his availability.

The Dutchman has performed admirably with the Mambas, who came from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Benin on Tuesday. "Every game for us in Angola is a cup final and so will be the game against Egypt," said Nooij.

His task of facing the Egyptians, who haven't lost at the Nations Cup since 2004, may have been eased by the fact that Pharaohs duo Hosni Abd-Rabou and Hossam Ghaly were unable to train on Wednesday due to illness (although both are expected to be fit).

That just leaves the team Egypt beat in last year's final - with Cameroon's Indomitable Lions struggling to justify their pre-tournament favourites tag after their shock loss to Gabon in Group D's opening round.

Daniel Cousin proved the match-winner that day to the delight of French coach Alain Giresse, who is targeting a place in the quarter-finals for the only the second time in Gabon's history. "Even if we finish second in this group we will be happy," the legendary Frenchman, who won the 1984 European Championship, said.

Gabon now meet Tunisia, who drew their opening game 1-1 with Zambia's Chipolopolo - one of three teams in the group to be led by a Frenchman.

"This draw has left the group wide open," said Zambia coach Herve Renard. "It would be very nice if we knock Cameroon out of this tournament.''

Zambia meet the Indomitable Lions on Sunday in Lubango in both teams' second match of the tournament - an eerie parallel to both sides' Nations Cup fortunes of 2008. On that occasion, Cameroon - who also lost their opener in Ghana - won 5-1 to start a run that would take them all the way to the final.

How coach Paul Le Guen would love a repeat with the proviso, of course, that on this occasion that Cameroon go one better than in 2008, when they finished runners-up, and actually win the tournament.

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