JOHANNESBURG: Mali moved closer to joining Nigeria in the final round of African World Cup qualifying Sunday, while South Africa continued to struggle.
Seydou Keita scored a pair of goals six minutes apart midway through the second half and led Mali to a 3-0 victory over Sudan, putting it three points atop its group with two matches to play.
Nigeria became the first team to assure itself of a place in the 20-team final round, getting goals from Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Ikechukwu Uche for a 2-0 victory over Equatorial Guinea on Saturday. The result assured it of finishing atop Group 4.
Only the 12 group winners and eight second-place teams advance to the final round, when teams will be placed in five four-team groups. The group winners will qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa.
Like Mali, Burkina Faso moved to the brink of advancing with two rounds remaining, using first-half goals by Charles Kabore and Mamadou Kere to pace a 4-1 victory over Seychelles on Saturday.
With a vastly superior goal difference, a draw by Mali against the Republic of Congo in the next round of games in September could virtually assure it of a place in the next round.
Similarly, a draw by Burkina Faso against Tunisia in September would all but clinch its trip to the final round of qualifying.
While not having to worry about qualifying for the World Cup, since it is the host nation, South Africa damaged its chances of making the African Cup finals. The qualifying tournament also serves as an elimination for the biennial continental championship, and South Africa was held to a 0-0 draw by Sierra Leone at home Saturday, leaving it with four points.
It trails Nigeria by eight points, leads Sierra Leone in Group 4 by goal difference and is only a point ahead of Equatorial Guinea.
Elsewhere, Cameroon and Cape Verde continued their struggle for the Group 1 lead, Cameroon beating Tanzania 2-1 on Saturday with two goals from Samuel Eto o to stay atop the group with 10 points, and Cape Verde winning 3-1 over Mauritius on Sunday to remain a point behind.
Guinea bolstered its chances Sunday, getting three goals from Ismael Bangoura for a 4-0 victory over Namibia to climb atop Group 2 on goal difference. It improved to seven points, just ahead of Kenya, which played to a 0-0 draw at Zimbabwe on Saturday. Zimbabwe is third with five points.
Benin climbed alone atop Group 3 on Sunday with a 2-0 victory over Niger, but Angola or Uganda could join it on Monday. Angola s match Sunday with Uganda in Luanda had to be postponed for a day when the referee crew did not arrive in time.
Ghana and Libya remained tied atop Group 5 with nine points each. Ghana won 2-0 on Sunday to keep pace with Libya, which on Friday led on Osama Al-Fathani s goal in the second minute and added three more in the second half en route to a 4-0 victory over Lesotho. Gabon has three points while Lesotho lost its third straight. Gabon and Lesotho will make up their match postponed on May 31 on Saturday.
Senegal remained two points ahead of Algeria for the Group 6 lead with its 3-1 victory over Liberia on Saturday. Algeria won 1-0 on Friday to improve to six points. Gambia is third with five points.
Ivory Coast took a major step to advancing beating Botswana 4-0 in Abidjan Sunday on a pair of second-half goals by Cisse Sekou. The victory improved the Ivorians to eight points atop Group 7, three ahead of second-placed Botswana. Mozambique remained four points off the lead with a 3-0 victory over Madagascar on Sunday.
Morocco moved atop Group 8 on Saturday, winning 2-0 over Rwanda on Saturday in Casablanca, leaving both with nine points but the northern Africans ahead on goal difference. Ethiopia kept its hopes alive with a 6-1 rout of Mauritania, giving it six points and staying within three of the group leaders.
Tunisia beat Burundi 2-1 on Saturday in Ouagadougou to remain three points behind Burkina Faso in Group 9, but likely will have to win in Burkina Faso in its next game. With a plus-three goal difference to Burkina Faso s plus-seven, a draw in September would leave Tunisia needing a big victory in its finale against Seychelles and some help from Burundi to advance.
The Republic of Congo faces a similar situation as Tunisia in Group 10. Its 2-0 victory on Sunday with goals by Mouithis Lys and Ibara Frabcel left it three points back of Mali.
It will host Mali in September, but with the Malians holding a plus-five goal difference and the Congolese at zero, anything short of victory could be devastating.
Zambia beat Swaziland 1-0 on Saturday to put both in a virtual tie atop Group 11, the only three-team group in the competition and where second-place will not be good enough to advance. Both have four points with Togo a point behind.
In Group 12, both Congo and Egypt won Sunday to remain tied for the lead with nine points each. Shabani Nonda scored two goals in the first half and added another in the second to pace a 5-1 victory over Djibouti while Egypt won 2-0 over Malawi at home. -AP