- Associated Press - Saturday, September 6, 2014

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) - Defending champion Nigeria threw away a 1-0 lead in losing 3-2 at home to Republic of Congo on Saturday at the start of the final qualifiers for next year’s African Cup of Nations.

Ivory Coast came from behind to beat Sierra Leone 2-1 with two goals in five minutes, and Ghana had to fight for a 1-1 draw at home to Uganda as some of the continent’s top teams were given tough workouts. Cameroon and Algeria, Africa’s other two representatives at the World Cup, both won.

Nigeria was ahead through defender Efe Ambrose’s 13th-minute goal in Calabar. Prince Oniangue equalized two minutes later and a Thievy Bifouma double put the game out of the African champions’ reach in the biggest surprise of the round.

Substitute Gbolahan Salami scored in the final minute of normal time, ultimately only a consolation for Nigeria after it couldn’t make six minutes of injury time count. Nigeria’s troubled recent run continued, with the country threatened with suspension by FIFA because of problems within the football federation and still arguing over a new contract for 2013 African Cup-winning coach Stephen Keshi.

Republic of Congo made it to this stage of qualifying only as a replacement for Rwanda, which was disqualified. Nigeria dropped behind early pace-setters South Africa and Republic of Congo in Group A before traveling to play South Africa next week.

Ivory Coast scored two goals in quick succession from Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho in the 63rd and 68th minutes to give new coach Herve Renard a winning start in Abidjan against Sierra Leone. It didn’t come without a struggle, though. Sierra Leone - which picked an entirely foreign-based squad because of the deadly Ebola outbreak at home - struck first through Kei Kamara just before halftime.

Ghana almost followed Nigeria to a shock defeat at home when Tony Mawejje put Uganda ahead. Andre Ayew saved the Ghanaians with a 50th-minute penalty, but the home crowd in Kumasi booed their own players, in part for Ghana’s poor performance on Saturday but also because of their World Cup failure.

“It was important to pick up a point and then pick up the pieces later,” Ghana assistant coach Maxwell Konadu said of the draw.

Guinea leads Group E after beating Togo on Friday night.

Algeria, Africa’s top-ranked team, beat Ethiopia 2-1 to start the decisive competition for Morocco 2015 with three points. Cameroon won 2-0 in Congo in its first game since its disastrous World Cup in Brazil.

El Arabi Soudani and Yacine Brahimi put Algeria ahead in Addis Ababa after absorbing early pressure. Saladin Said, who had gone close twice in the first half before Algeria went ahead, could only score a consolation for the Ethiopians with a penalty in the fifth minute of injury time.

Cameroon began life without retired striker Samuel Eto’o by rebounding from its three losses at the World Cup with an impressive win in Congo after Clinton N’jie gave the visiting team the lead in first-half injury time and Vincent Aboubakar added a second late on. Cameroon leads Group D on goal difference from Ivory Coast.

Zambia, the 2012 African Cup of Nations winner, began with a 0-0 home draw with Mozambique, a major disappointment for the Zambians after the home strikers wasted a succession of chances. Cape Verde took advantage of Zambia’s slip to win 3-1 at Niger and lead Group F. Cape Verde was 2-0 up after 14 minutes to cruise to victory in Niamey.

Burkina Faso beat Lesotho 2-0 and Gabon edged Angola 1-0 in Group C.

The final qualifiers see 28 teams split into seven groups, with the top two in each group winning places at the Cup of Nations in Morocco in January and February. There is also a place for the best third-placed team.

South Africa, Senegal and Guinea all opened the three-month qualifying competition with victories on Friday.

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