By Nick Said
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Madagascar qualified for their first ever African Nations Cup finals after beating Equatorial Guinea 1-0 at home on Tuesday and were later joined by Egypt, Senegal and Tunisia in the 24-team field for next year's expanded finals.
With two nations qualifying from 11 of the 12 four-team groups, Madagascar were always going to have a good chance to make the breakthrough, at their 17th attempt, after starting their Group A campaign with an away win in Sudan last year.
Yet successive 1-0 wins home and away against Equatorial Guinea in the last five days took them over the line with Njiva Rakotoharimalala scoring the only goal of Tuesday’s match in Antananarivo.
Senegal won 1-0 in Sudan thanks to a late goal from Sidy Sarr as Liverpool forward Sadio Mane was left out of the team after hurting a thumb at the weekend.
Egypt’s 2-0 away win over eSwatini, formerly Swaziland, was without the injured Mohamed Salah and a 2-1 triumph for Tunisia in Niger ensured the two north African powerhouses qualified from Group J. Firas Chawat scored both goals for Tunisia on his debut.
Uganda need a point from their last two qualifiers to reach the finals after beating Lesotho 2-0 away and Guinea are also on the cusp despite giving up a late goal and being held 1-1 in Rwanda.
Liverpool’s Naby Keita went off at halftime with a suspected muscle strain.
Ivory Coast still have some work to do after they were held 0-0 away in Central African Republic, but are expected to qualify from Group H along with Guinea.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did not play for Gabon as they won 1-0 in South Sudan after a row over the charter plane initially laid on to take the team to Juba.
Aubameyang lead protests by players and staff and then said he had a backache and pulled out of the trip on Monday, as a new and larger plane took the players for the match, where Andre Biyogo Poko scored the only goal of the game.
Aubameyang last month criticised the Gabon federation’s poor organisation.
Tiny Seychelles held South Africa to a goalless draw on the Indian Ocean island, while Nigeria's Odion Ighalo followed up his hat-trick against Libya at the weekend with another two goals against the same opposition in a 3-2 win in neutral Sfax, Tunisia.
Nigeria top Group E with nine points, South Africa have eight and Libya four.
South Africa, however, have tough fixtures against Nigeria at home next month and Libya away in March for their last two games and could miss out on the finals for the second straight edition.
(Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis)