Just six places are still available for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) after Angola, Ghana and Tanzania booked their spots at the finals in Ivory Coast on Thursday.
Led by former Newcastle, Brighton and Norwich manager Chris Hughton, Ghana beat Central African Republic 2-1 as the hosts came from behind in Kumasi in a tense encounter where defeat could have led to an embarrassing elimination.
But new West Ham signing Mohammed Kudus drew the Black Stars level before half-time, with Lyon’s Ernest Nuamah, 19, making sure of both the win and qualification with an 88th-minute strike.
The result is a huge disappointment for Central African Republic who went into the match with high hopes of qualifying for Afcon for the first time, and who had spurned a previous chance to qualifying when losing 2-1 at home to Angola in June when a win would have taken them through.
The Angolans have since built on that vital win and claimed second spot in Group E thanks to their 0-0 draw with already-eliminated Madagascar in Lubango.
In Group F, Tanzania secured their second qualification in three attempts after holding Algeria in Annaba to a goalless draw, a result which prevented the 2019 African champions from being the only country this qualifying campaign to win all their matches.
Having reached their first Nations Cup in 1980, the Taifa Stars failed to appear again until the 2019 finals but are now back again as coach Adel Amrouche, who was born in Algeria, masterminded a success few saw coming in a challenging group.
He was helped on Wednesday by the fact that Algeria, who had already qualified, left West Ham’s Said Benrahma and former Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez on the bench until the second half, when they made little impact.
Algeria topped Group F with 16 points from their six games, with Tanzania on eight and Uganda – who beat Niger 2-0 in neutral Morocco thanks to first-half goals from Aziz Kayondo and Joseph Ochaya – finishing on seven.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, Tunisia beat Botswana to finish first in Group J but needed a 60th-minute own goal from Alford Velaphi to break the deadlock before going on to win 3-0.
The Tunisians had already qualified but nudged Equatorial Guinea, who drew 1-1 away in Libya on Wednesday, out of top spot and into second place.
Several crucial games will take place up until 12 September as nations including Cameroon, DR Congo and The Gambia look to secure their place at the tournament – with a total of 18 teams having now reached the 24-team finals.
Wednesday’s three qualifiers join Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia at the finals alongside Ivory Coast, who qualified automatically as hosts.
The Cup of Nations will begin on 13 January 2024, with the final taking place on 11 February.