Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez scored the goal that wrapped up a 3-1 victory for Algeria over Zimbabwe Thursday and stretched an unbeaten run by the African champions to 21 matches.
He pounced on a weak clearance and surged forward before slamming the ball across goalkeeper Elvis Chipezeze into the far corner for a three-goal lead in a 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
Second-place Zimbabwe managed a late consolation goal from Tino Kadewere as they surrendered an unbeaten record in Group H and fell five points behind Algeria after three rounds.
Algeria have won 16 matches and drawn five since losing to Benin in October 2018 and Mahrez has hailed coach Djamel Belmadi as “a magician who has breathed a soul into our national team”.
Baghdad Bounedjah, whose early goal earned Algeria victory over Senegal in the 2019 Cup of Nations final, and Sofiane Feghouli gave the Desert Foxes a two-goal half-time advantage in Algiers.
The match was staged behind closed doors in the 80,000-seat national stadium because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has severely disrupted the African international schedule this year.
Matchday 3 in the contest to fill 23 places for the finals in Cameroon, which began Wednesday, was originally planned for last March.
Zambia, who made a disastrous start to Group H with a heavy loss in Algeria and a shock home defeat by Zimbabwe, edged Botswana 2-1 in Lusaka to close within one point of Zimbabwe.
– Aubameyang scores –
It should be a case of when not if Algeria finish first, leaving southern Africa neighbours Zimbabwe and Zambia to fight for the other qualifying place.
Meanwhile, Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put his Premier League goal woes behind him by scoring for Gabon in a 2-1 Group D win over the Gambia.
Denis Bouanga gave the Panthers a half-time lead in the top-of-the-table clash that Aubameyang doubled before Bubacarr Jobe pulled one goal back nine minutes from time in Franceville.
France-born Aubameyang, the son of a former Gabon star, has netted only twice for the Gunners in eight league matches this season.
Gabon, who underperformed in recent years and failed to qualify for the 2019 Cup of Nations, have a three-point lead in a section including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
Another Premier League forward, Sebastien Haller of West Ham United, scored on his debut as the Ivory Coast edged Madagascar 2-1 in Abidjan and replaced the islanders as Group K leaders.
Former Arsenal winger Gervinho was the other scorer for the Ivorian Elephants, who were captained by Tottenham Hotspur full-back Serge Aurier.
Andre Ayew, a son of African legend Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, scored in each half as Ghana defeated Sudan 2-0 in Cape Coast to maintain a perfect Group C record after three rounds.
He netted direct from a free-kick and the victory-sealing second goal nine minutes from time came after a dash across the box and an unstoppable shot.
There were nine home wins Thursday with Cape Verde the only exception as they were held 0-0 by Rwanda in Praia in Group F, where Cameroon hold a three-point lead.
Automatic qualifiers as hosts, the Cameroonians are taking part to gain competitive match practice and Vincent Aboubakar bagged a brace when they trounced Mozambique 4-1 in Douala.