Africa Cup of Nations qualifying: Five big observations

Riyad Mahrez and Algeria have made a strong start to qualifying in defence of their Africa Cup of Nations crown. EPA/STR

Less than four months after Algeria defeated Senegal to clinch the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations title, qualifying for the 2021 edition has begun, with a series of fascinating fixtures across the continent during the international break.

There were shocks aplenty, several fine performances, and a handful of individuals who stood out above the rest. Here are Ed Dove's five big observations from the opening two rounds of Afcon qualifying.

Afcon champions remain the team to beat

Six teams took the maximum six points from their opening two qualifiers, but none were impressive than Algeria. The chanmpions maintained the form they demonstrated in Egypt, and didn't concede a goal in their meetings with Zambia and Adel Amrouche's Botswana.

Their second victory -- a 1-0 triumph against a physical Botswana side in difficult conditions in Gaborone -- was functional rather than flamboyant, but their opening 5-0 demolition of 2012 champions Zambia was among the finest performances of the weekend.

Ramy Bensebaini opened the scoring just before the break, and Algeria's second-half performance was a joy to behold, with even the returning Hilal Soudani getting among the goals.

This pair of victories mean Algeria end 2019 undefeated, and they remain Africa's team to beat even if, longer term, several of their key players are coming towards the end of their prime.

Minnows thrive, giants flounder

Some of Africa's less-heralded footballing nations were among the real winners of the international break, with Comoros and Gambia, notably, delivering remarkable performances.

The Comoros -- a tiny archipelago in the Indian Ocean -- became FIFA members only in 2005, but they are beginning to reap the rewards of tapping into the nation's extensive diaspora.

Previously, they memorably held Ghana to a goalless draw on their tricky artificial surface in Moroni; but even that achievement was overshadowed by recent events, as they defeated Togo away before holding Mohamed Salah-less Egypt to a 0-0 draw at home.

The Pharaohs have well-documented problems, but this was still a remarkable feat for a team, representing a nation of fewer than one million people, that is ranked No. 142 in the world and won their first competitive match only during the Afcon 2017 qualifying campaign.

Their four-point haul shouldn't come as a complete shock -- they held both Morocco and Cameroon at home during the previous qualifying campaign -- but Comoros must now lopk to translate these results to tournament qualification?

Gambia, ranked No. 166 in the world, are enjoying a similar rise; they just missed qualification last time around, but they have begun this campaign with an away victory against Angola and a 2-2 draw at home with the Democratic Republic of Congo, world-ranked No. 54, to sit atop Group D.

The triumph in Luanda was their first competitive victory in 36 years, and they were arguably unfortunate not to have beaten the Congolese after the referee missed Marcel Tisserand 's handball in the box and also dubiously ruling out an Omar Colley goal for offside.

Credit must also go to Ethiopia, fallen giants of the African game, who defeated Ivory Coast for the first time in more than half a century to prompt scenes of jubilation in Addis Ababa.

Nigeria's unfamiliar faces spare the blushes

There was a sense, heading into the qualifying campaign, that Gernot Rohr still hadn't truly convinced as Super Eagles boss.

He led Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup and secured a return to the Africa Cup of Nations. after missing out on two editions, but the West Africans toiled in Russia and weren't entirely convincing in Egypt -- defeat by Madagascar sticks in the mind -- even if they did ultimately win the bronze medal.

Rohr faced further challenges heading into this qualifying campaign following the post-Afcon retirement of Odion Ighalo and John Obi Mikel, with the duo joining Victor Moses as key figures of the coach's early tenure who are no longer eligible for selection.

Rohr's team still look too often less than the sum of its parts, and poor results in his opening qualifiers could have turned popular support against him.

There were wobbles again during the international break, as the Eagles fell behind twice -- at home against Benin and away in tiny Lesotho.

But they bounced back on both occasions, with Victor Osimhen scoring once in the first game and twice in the second, Samuel Chukwueze and Samuel Kalu nabbing a goal in each match, and Joe Aribo pulling the strings in midfield.

Nigeria will surely reach Cameroon 2021, and they will be contenders once again, but it remains to be seen how much longer the team's new faces can paper over the persistent structural problems that have long existed with Rohr's Nigeria.

- Udoh: Osimhen wrecking ball for Nigeria in Afcon qualifying
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New management, similar stories

A host of high-profile African national teams have begun the qualifying campaign under new management, although there was little in the way of tangible improvement.

For Kenya, Francis Kimanzi has been appointed to pick the side up after their uninspired Nations Cup showing under Sebastien Migne; they lacked vibrancy in their draw with Togo, but proved they'd lost none of the defensive qualities that got them to the 2019 edition with a resilient showing against Egypt in Alexandria.

Despite losing goalkeeper Patrick Matasi and winger Ayub Timbe to first-half injuries, and falling behind after Mahmoud Kahraba struck before the break, Kimanzi's Kenya rallied and demonstrated the character and drive that had increasingly been absent under Migne to equalise through Michael Olunga.

There are still grave areas of weakness, but their rugged showing in Alexandria was a far cry from their whimpering Afcon capitulations against Senegal and Algeria.

Johnny McKinstry began his reign with Uganda by claiming four points from Burkina Faso away and Malawi at home, with the defensive resolve of Milutin Sredojevic and Sebastien Desabre's tenures still on display, while Molefi Ntseki's South Africa still evidence the brittleness and lack of attacking cohesion of his predecessor Stuart Baxter's side.

Vahid Halilhodzic, now with Morocco, is yet to solve the problem that undermined Herve Renard at the Afcon; while the Atlas Lions thrashed a poor Burundi side 3-0 away, they were worryingly neutralised by Mauritania in front of their own -- disgruntled -- fans in Rabat.

Then there's Cameroon, where Toni Conceicao, the underwhelming replacement for Clarence Seedorf, presides over a malaise, with the Indomitable Lions subdued at home by minnows Cape Verde before taking 71 minutes to break the deadlock against tiny Rwanda away.

The DRC, too, will have been expecting more than two points from Gabon's visit to Kinshasa and the away trip to Gambia after appointing Christian Nsengi-Biembe as Florent Ibenge's replacement, while Zambia's new man, Aggrey Chiyangi, couldn't halt the tide of disappointment from Sven Vandenbroeck's tenure.

A fresh cycle of stars

As well as the aforementioned Osimhen, who has scored four Nigeria goals since early September, various other players are beginning to establish themselves as key figures in their respective national sides.

Some of these talents are fresh faces entirely, whereas others are finally enjoying greater prominence with their respective sides.

In defence, Achraf Hakimi and Youcef Atal -- both already relatively established -- continued to demonstrate their increasing prominence for Morocco and Algeria respectively. They are comfortably going forward, and provide dynamism and vertical movement, representing significant attacking threats from deep. It will be fascinating to see how Borussia Dortmund loanee Hakimi, 21, and OGC Nice wideman Atal, 23, progress in the coming two years, but they're already taking on increasing responsibility at international level.

Hakimi found the net for Morocco in a fine display against Burundi, while dribbling ace Atal contributed an assist against Zambia even if his temper got the better of him on occasion.

Elsewhere, Senegal's Habib Diallo, Moussa Djenepo of Mali, and Mohammed Kudus -- who scored on his Ghana debut against South Africa -- could be primed to step into more prominent positions within African football.