Moses, Mikel lift Nigeria to win as Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana falter
Four countries kept up their 100 percent starts to the group phase of African World Cup qualifiers at the weekend, but it's a mediocre showing from a trio of 2014 finalists that's drawing the most attention.
Algeria, Cameroon and Ghana all sit in perilous positions after two rounds of matches, with four more still to come before group winners are decided. Just five representatives from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will start making plans for Russia 2018. Algeria suffered a 3-1 away loss to Nigeria, while Cameroon dropped points in a 1-1 draw with Zambia and Ghana were defeated 2-0 by Egypt.
Algeria's concern at their plight has already precipitated a change of coach and there is growing pressure on Avram Grant after two successive games without a win for the Black Stars of Ghana.
Cameroon blew a good start away in Algeria last month by dropping valuable points at home to Zambia on Saturday. They now go into their next matches against Nigeria knowing they need to beat the Super Eagles both home and away to have any realistic chance at qualifying.
For Algeria, Cameroon and Ghana to come back now is going to be difficult, despite what their coaches said in postmatch news conferences after their respective weekend setbacks.
"I can tell you one thing; first, we have African Cup before so we will do everything in African Cup. We showed today that we are a good team but we will fight till the end," said Ghana manager Grant after his side were beaten 2-0 by Egypt in Alexandria on Sunday night.
"Anything is possible in football. Now Egypt is leading Uganda with four points and we have one point. Twelve points to go, everything could happen in football and we will not give up until the last moment," he added.
George Leekens, parachuted in to take over the Algerian side after a player revolt last month, said his side should have got a draw and added that he had no doubt his team could get back to a high level and still compete.
"Nigeria must still come to Algeria, right?" he said after Saturday's 3-1 defeat in Uyo.
Nigeria are among the quartet of countries with six out of a possible six points and already have a significant four-point lead in their group. Victor Moses and Jon Obi Mikel were the scorers in the impressive victory over Algeria that made a mockery of the fact the Super Eagles did not qualify for the upcoming African Cup of Nations finals.
Egypt fans were delirious after Sunday's success against Ghana, although there were many nervy moments for the home side, who are still battling with the burden of trying to bring an end to the country's long-standing inability to secure World Cup qualification.
In Group A, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia share the top spot, both on six points after wins against Guinea and Libya respectively at the weekend. Two goals in as many minutes from Neekens Kebano and Yannick Bolaise handed DR Congo a come-from-behind victory in Guinea on Sunday.
Tunisia began the weekend's action with a 1-0 win over Libya in neutral Algeria, where their opponents were playing a first game under new manager Jamal Damja.
DR Congo and Tunisia will play each other next in an effective two-legged mini-final as Guinea and Libya look not much more than also-rans in the group.
There is now a lengthy break in the calendar until the next round of World Cup qualifiers with the last four rounds all coming quickly on top of each other from August to November 2017. For Algeria, Cameroon and Ghana, there is little time to digest the disappointing results and plan ahead, as all three go to the Cup of Nations tournament in Gabon in need of positive results.
In a sense, it is a good opportunity for redemption and a chance to relieve some of the pressure, but ultimately the positives of any Cup of Nations success will quick evaporate under the heat of World Cup failure.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.