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WCQ: Ekambi takes Cameroon to play-offs at expense of Ivory Coast

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Cameroon forward Karl Toko Ekambi C celebrates after scoring the goal that beat the Ivory Coast on Tuesday in a World Cup qualifier in Yaounde

Karl Toko Ekambi was the toast of Cameroon on Tuesday as his first-half goal delivered a 1-0 win over Ivory Coast and a place in the African play-offs for the 2022 World Cup.

The 29-year-old Lyon forward struck on 21 minutes to decide a clash of giants with Cameroon having qualified for the World Cup seven times – an African record – and Ivory Coast on three occasions.

Ivory Coast entered the Group D decider in Yaounde with a one-point advantage and needing a draw to remain first.

But Cameroon, who have been playing catch-up since losing in Abidjan in September, emerged victorious less than two months before hosting the Africa Cup of Nations.

African champions Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia also won sections to fill the other three places up for grabs on the final day of group matches.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Mali, Morocco and Senegal had earlier secured the other six play-offs places.

A seeded draw, likely to be based on FIFA world rankings, will divide the 10 survivors into five pairings, with the winners of the two-legged ties representing Africa at the World Cup in Qatar.

There will be huge pressure on the qualifiers to impress at the global football showpiece after Africa fared disastrously at the 2018 tournament in Russia, with all five teams eliminated after the first round.

Algeria stretched an unbeaten run to 33 matches – a record for an African national team – with Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez among the scorers in a 2-2 Group A draw against Burkina Faso.

His goal was cancelled out by Zakaria Sanogo before half-time and Issoufou Dayo converted an 83rd-minute penalty to set up a tense finish in Blida after Sofiane Feghouli had put Algeria ahead a second time.

Algeria, who are seeking a fifth World Cup appearance, topped the table with 14 points, Burkina Faso accumulated 12, Niger seven and minnows Djibouti none.

– Osimhen strikes early –

Nigeria were another country to progress despite failing to take maximum points at home as they drew 1-1 with Cape Verde in Group C.

In-form Napoli forward Victor Osimhen had the Super Eagles in front within one minute of the kick-off in Lagos, but Ianique ‘Stopira’ Tavares levelled five minutes later.

The result triggered more social media calls for six-time World Cup qualifiers Nigeria to sack German coach Gernot Rohr after an unimpressive campaign.

Nigeria suffered a stunning matchday 3 loss to the Central African Republic – a first home defeat in World Cup qualifying since 1981 – and were overly reliant on Osimhen for goals.

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Cape Verde forward Vagner Dias (L) shields the ball from Nigeria defender Chidozie Awaziem (R) during a 2022 World Cup qualifier in Lagos on Tuesday

The Super Eagles finished with 13 points, followed by Cape Verde on 11 while Liberia (six) and the Central African Republic (four) were never serious contenders.

Tunisia recovered from a first loss in Group B last week – away to Equatorial Guinea – by hammering Zambia 3-1 in Rades to top the table.

Goals from Aissa Laidouni, Mohamed Drager and Ali Maaloul before half-time ensured the Carthage Eagles stayed on course to qualify a sixth time.

Equatorial Guinea came a creditable second, two points behind Tunisia, thanks to a 1-1 draw against Mauritania in Nouakchott, where Saul Coco cancelled out a lead Aboubakar Kamara gave the hosts.

A showdown between Premier League stars Mohamed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did not materialise in Group F as Egypt beat Gabon 2-1 in Alexandria.

Read Also: WCQ: Super Eagles playoffs foe emerges December 18

Egypt captain and prolific Liverpool scorer Salah started on the bench before replacing Mohamed Sherif for the last 30 minutes.

There were conflicting reports as to why Gabon skipper and Arsenal forward Aubameyang missed the match. Some said he was injured and others that an agreement was reached with his club to release him early.

Morocco were the only team among the 40 in the group stage who won all six matches with Ryan Mmaee netting twice in a 3-0 Group I trouncing of Guinea in Casablanca

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Serie A: Napoli mark Maradona anniversary with dazzling win

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Napoli paid the perfect tribute to Diego Maradona on Sunday by thumping Lazio 4-0 to move three points clear at the top of Serie A.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino was among those present in Naples as the southern Italian city honoured one of its adopted sons, who led Napoli to their only two league titles and the 1989 Uefa Cup and died a year ago on Thursday.

Fans chanted Maradona’s name as a statue, which depicts their idol in full flight atop the number 10, was carried around the pitch.

A tribute from Pele was shown on the stadium’s big screens, while players came out for their pre-match warm-up to the sound of “Life Is Life” by Opus, the song to which Maradona does keepie-uppies in one of the most beloved pieces of footage of the Argentine in his pomp.

Inspired by the emotional ceremony, Napoli took full advantage of AC Milan crashing to a 3-1 home defeat against Sassuolo to go it alone at the summit with an at times electrifying performance.

Kitted out in shirts which bore Maradona’s face, Luciano Spalletti’s table toppers came out like a team possessed and blew Lazio out of the water with three superb first half goals.

MERTENS SWEEPS LAZIO ASIDE

In almost perfect synergy with the occasion it was another adopted Neapolitan in Dries Mertens who led the charge, the Belgian nicknamed ‘Ciro’ scoring a brilliant brace of which Maradona himself would have been proud.

Piotr Zielinski got the ball rolling in the seventh minute by almost ripping a hole in the net with his rocket opener, and just three minutes later Mertens took the roof off the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona when he ended a brilliant move by dumping Patric on the deck with a feint and slotting home a cool finish.

After Luis Alberto and then Francesco Acerbi went close for Lazio in the space of a minute, Mertens effectively sealed the win with more than an hour to play with another wonderful goal, clipping a first-time strike that sailed over a despairing Pepe Reina and increased his club-record goal tally to 139.

The 34-year-old’s three superb strikes in his last two Serie A matches will also give Spalletti hope that he can get by without star striker Victor Osimhen, out for up to three months with facial fractures.

Fabian Ruiz capped a perfect night when he lashed home the fourth from distance.

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Spurs powerbrokers agreed over push for Fiorentina striker Vlahovic

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Fiorentina striker, Dusan Vlahovic, remains high on the agenda at Tottenham.

Tottenham are said to be leading the race to land Vlahovic, with Juventus also said to be keeping a close eye on the situation.

It seems as though Spurs may be inclined to throw all of their resources behind a move for the forward if Harry Kane ends up joining Manchester City ahead of next season.

read also:No tension!, Rodgers confident about Premier League chances

Spurs manager Antonio Conte and technical director Fabio Paratici are both fully convinced that Vlahovic would serve as the ‘ideal heir’ to the England skipper, says Tuttomercatoweb.

The report claims that Spurs may be starting to plan for life without Kane, who is ‘destined’ to leave the club after failing to push through an exit during pre-season.

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Ronaldo ‘determined to retire with more Ballon d’Or’s than Messi’

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Manchester United attacker Cristiano Ronaldo is reportedly determined to retire with more Ballon d’Or’s than Lionel Messi.

The Portuguese has won the award on five occasions, firstly scooping the prize in 2008 before further triumphs in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

In contrast, Lionel Messi boasts six wins in the Ballon d’Or, with the 34-year-old taking the titles in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2019, with the 2020 edition cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

read also:No tension!, Rodgers confident about Premier League chances

Now, award chief Pascal Ferre has claimed that Ronaldo has informed him of his ambition to win more Ballon d’Or’s than his Argentine counterpart before he hangs up his boots.

Speaking to Marca, Ferre said: “Ronaldo has only one ambition and that is to retire with more Ballon d’Or than Messi and I know because he told me.”

Ronaldo boasts 10 goals and two assists from 14 games in all competitions for Man United since returning to the club in the summer.

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