• Alasdair Howorth

World Cup Qualifying review: four sides start off in winning fashion amidst COVID-19 stricken window

(Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

With just four months left until the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cameroon, sides were left without Britain-based players in their bids to not only prepare for the delayed continental tournament, but also qualify for the World Cup in the same year. With the Premier League and EFL bans on players going to red-list countries -25 of which are in Africa- many teams were forced to look to different options in order to cope with the absences. Some teams such as Nigeria, Egypt and Ghana were left playing very different squads in their two matches as they played one game in a red-list country and one match in an amber-list country.

Group A

AFCON holders Algeria kicked off their World Cup campaign with a comfortable 8-0 win against Djibouti and followed that up with a 1-1 draw 'away' to Burkina Faso -though the match was played in Morocco-. The draw takes the Desert Foxes’ unbeaten run to 29 games, an African record. They will undoubtedly be disappointed in the result and performance against Burkina Faso and their inability to control the game in the second half after taking the lead. There are still questions to be answered in defence, particularly at right back for Djamel Belmadi. Despite that, the team is still one of the strongest in Africa and with the re-emergence of Islam Slimani as a goal scoring centre forward, they have not one, but two of the best centre forwards in Africa supported by incredible quality in midfield and on the wings.

Burkina Faso comfortably beat Niger 2-0 and keep themselves level with Algeria and still with a hope of clinching that single spot in the next round of World Cup qualifying. With a pacey and direct squad, boasting one of Africa's most exciting young centre-forwards in Lassina Traore, they will be one of the potential dark horses in the upcoming AFCON. A Victorien Adebayor brace leaves Niger in 3rd above Djibouti who are only for the second time in their history competing for a place in the third round of qualification.

Group B

Tunisia took full advantage of the absences of key players for Zambia in defeating them 2-0 in Ndola after comfortably beating Equatorial Guinea 3-0 in their first match to take full control of the group. Zambia, one of the most exciting youthful sides in Africa, were forced to play their crunch tie against Tunisia without their star trio of Enock Mwepu, Patson Daka and Fashion Sakala -the former two due to COVID-19 and Sakala, a combination of COVID-19 and injury- and now face an up-hill battle to catch the North African side.

Zambia, with Mwepu on the scoresheet, took all three points away in Nouakchott in what was arguably the best match of the break. Zambia raced into the lead through Mwepu and took a 2-0 lead early in the second half before Mauritania pulled one back through Mamadou Niass. With Mauritania pushing for the equaliser there were chances galore, but neither side could add to their tally. Despite their impressive performance at home, Mauritania then fell to Equatorial Guinea, the fourth lowest ranked side in qualifying, in Malabo and may already be out of contention for getting through to the next round.

Group C

Nigeria took full charge of group C grabbing two wins from two. The Super Eagles comfortably beat Liberia at home without ever coming out of second gear, with Leicester star Kelechi Iheanacho grabbing both goals. They followed up with their toughest challenge in the group, an away trip to Cape Verde without any of their British contingent. With seven changes, the Super Eagles were reliant on Victor Osimhen and a comical own goal from Rocha Santos to earn a 2-1 victory for captain Ahmed Musa who made a century of caps and is now only one away from the record held by legends Joseph Yobo and Victor Enyeama.

Cape Verde, having considered themselves the closest challenge to Nigeria, have it all to do now having lost at home to Nigeria following a shock 1-1 draw against CAR. CAR were not only playing their 'home' match in Yaoundé, but also missing a contingent of European based players such as star Geoffrey Kondogbia who are protesting the conditions and infrastructure of the national side. The squad, built predominantly of locally-based players, fought back from 1-0 down to draw thanks to a Tresor Toropite goal. Les Fauves were unable to build off the result, however and fell to a late 1-0 loss to Liberia, leaving Nigeria in total control of the group.

Group D

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Côte d'Ivoire took a narrow lead in the group following an impressive victory at home against competitors Cameroon. One of the countries most badly affected by COVID, Côte d'Ivoire made seven changes following their disappointing 0-0 draw in Mozambique but looked imperious against Cameroon with Sebastien Haller grabbing a brace. Arguably one of the most balanced sides in Africa, and with a move to a back five to get the most out of captain Serge Aurier and Max Cornet on the wings, Patrice Beaumelle has found a system that makes the Elephants one of the favourites for the AFCON in January.

If they are to compete for the tournament on home soil in a few months, Cameroon will have to be much improved. While they were able to comfortably dispatch a Malawi side who have really struggled on the road, the way in which they were tactically and technically outplayed by Côte d'Ivoire, will really concern António Conceição. Malawi, who qualified for the AFCON on the back of a superb home record were dealt a massive blow when FIFA told them that they could not play matches on their artificial and so have to play their home matches in South Africa. However, that did not seem to phase them as they beat Mozambique 1-0. Richard Mbulu, who sent The Flames to the AFCON, scored the easiest goal of his career following a horrible back pass and mix up between the Mozambique defence and keeper.

Group E

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Mali find themselves in a narrow lead in Group E following a win against Rwanda and a draw away in Uganda. The West African side, in an otherwise East African group, completely dominated Rwanda, but only came away 1-0 winners thanks to a brilliant performance from Rwandan keeper Emery Mvuyekure. Uganda and Kenya played out a dour 0-0 draw in which Kenya were unable to take advantage of the absences of Taddeo Lwanga and Emmanuel Okwi who was forced off due to injury.

Kenya followed up by drawing 1-1 with Rwanda in Kigali, captain Michael Olunga's early strike being cancelled out by a lovely headed effort by Abdul Rwatubyaye. Uganda followed up their 0-0 in Nairobi with a second goalless draw against favourites Mali leaving the group finely poised. However, if neither Uganda nor Kenya can solve their inability to create more chances for their lethal centre-forwards, they will find it extremely difficult to catch up to a Mali side who were playing without key man Yves Bissouma. With the addition of Bissouma to an already excellent midfield duo of Amadou Haidara and Aliou Dieng, they will possess one of the most formidable midfields on the continent going into the AFCON.

Group F

The biggest surprise of the international break took place in Group F where Libya beat both Angola and Gabon to put themselves top of the group. Libya, playing their first home match in the country since June 2013 came back from 1-0 down thanks to two goals from defenders from corners, including Sanad Al Warfali's 95th minute header that crashed in off the underside of the bar. A combination of resilient defending and luck allowed the Mediterranean Knights to come away from Angola with a 1-0 win and all three points.

Group favourites Egypt sit second following a narrow 1-0 win at home against Angola and a 1-1 draw in Gabon. The Pharaohs were without talisman Mohamed Salah for their win against Angola, and laboured to a win, but were less impressive when playing with the Liverpool star. The poor start to qualification led the FA to sack coach Hossam El Badry and replace him with veteran coach Carlos Queiroz. Libya and Egypt will play each other back-to-back in a month's time in one of the tastiest ties of next month's qualifying round.

Group G

Arguably the closest group in qualification and one of the worst hit groups from COVID-19 absences, Group G is as tight as can be. South Africa were the team to benefit most from the travel restrictions as they faced very weakened Zimbabwe and Ghana sides. Bafana Bafana, under new coach Hugo Broos drew 0-0 in Harare, in a game low on chances that could have gone either way. They then followed it up with a narrow 1-0 win against a Ghana side who were similarly devastated by COVID absences in Joburg. Ghana, when at full strength, were disappointing in their 1-0 home win against Ethiopia and relied on a goal keeping mistake to grab three points.

Zimbabwe, who were without at least six players due to travel restrictions from the UK were understandably the most impacted in terms of performance and results. They missed the chance to beat a below-par South African side before losing away in Ethiopia to a last minute penalty put away from Aschalew Tamene. The group is finely poised if Zimbabwe can get their UK-based players back. Ethiopia, though unfancied, are a young and hungry side on the way up following the rapid growth of their national league led by star strike Abubeker Nasir. Zimbabwe are also a side with much to be positive about, having qualified for the AFCON from a very difficult group. With both Ghana and South Africa struggling as national sides recently, the group is finely poised to go any way.

Group H

As expected, Senegal are in total control of Group H following two victories from two. The Lions of Taranga comfortably dispatched Togo with star Sadio Mane at the heart of everything. The West African side have an embarrassment of riches across the park and showed it as PSG full back Abdou Diallo grabbed the second. However, despite the comfortable looking score line, Senegal were given a real scare against Congo and it took late goals from Ismaila Sarr and Mane to grab the three points in a game which featured penalties at both ends that should not have been given.

Congo grabbed themselves a point against Namibia 'away' in South Africa thanks to an unfortunate own goal from defender Charles Hambira who earlier in the match scored a lovely, flicked header from a free kick. Nambia looked very good value in their match and followed it up with an away win in Togo. The only goal of the game coming again from an indirect free kick. Following a flick on, forward Elmo Kambindu scored a superb over-head volley. While it is unlikely they will catch Senegal, Namibia will be hoping to provide a stiff challenge against the highest ranked side in Africa.

Group I

A group, marred by the attempted coup d'état in Guinea which led to the postponement of the match between the hosts and Morocco, hangs finely in the balance. Morocco beat outsiders Sudan with relative ease 2-0 in Rabat to set them on their way. The North African giants went into the break with chaos behind the scenes as star player Hakim Ziyech was not called up following claims that the Chelsea player was not showing up to international duty and treating the coach and team with contempt. It was fellow England-based player Ilias Chair who stole the show with an assist and deflected shot leading to an own-goal.

Guinea played their only match of the round against local rivals Guinea-Bissau. The sides played out a very entertaining 1-1 draw which ebbed and flowed in great measure. The Portuguese speaking Guinea followed up the draw with a commanding 4-2 win away in Omdurman. The result leaves Guinea-Bissau top of the group but facing a daunting double header against Morocco. With an additional match needing to be played between the top seeds of the group amidst an already packed international schedule, this is sure to be a keenly contested group with one or two surprises potentially still to come.

Group J

The second group that is too narrow to call and sure to have a thrilling conclusion with the top three teams separated by just one point. The group kicked off with an entertaining draw in Lubumbashi where talisman Dieumerci Mbokani's striker's finish was cancelled out by spectacular effort from Wydad forward Saimon Msuva. The Moroccan based forward crashed a long range shot in off the underside of the crossbar. In the other initial match, former Huddersfield forward Steve Mounié scored a trademark header scored the only goal for a dominant Benin side.

Tanzania followed up their creditable draw in DRC with a chaotic 3-2 win at home to Madagascar. The Taifa Stars raced into a 2-0 lead including scoring a penalty that was awarded after just four seconds. However, two quick-fire goals right before half time pulled Madagascar back into it, only for Feisal Salum Abdallah to score a second half winner in Dar es Salaam. Mbokani again was the early goal scorer in the other match as DRC grabbed a 1-1 draw in Benin to leave the group wide open. Tanzania and Benin are both on four points but now face each other in a double header next month which leaves DRC within touching distance of the two.

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