Johannesburg (AFP) – Defending champions Algeria were among six of the 48 contenders for places at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations who completed the first two qualifying rounds with perfect records this week.
For another 10 teams, including shock 2012 champions Zambia, it was a miserable time as they lost both matches to remain pointless.
While Premier League stars Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang failed to score, Senegalese Famara Diedhiou from English second-tier club Bristol City bagged a nine-minute hat-trick.
AFP Sport looks at some of the nations who did well, and not so well, as the chase began for 23 places at the 2021 tournament in Cameroon.
The trophy-holders are on a roll, winning 15 and drawing three competitive and friendly matches since losing away to Benin last November.
A surprisingly big 5-0 home win over Zambia was followed by a 1-0 away victory over Botswana in a fiercely physical battle on a sub-standard pitch called a ‘car park’ by one pundit.
Baghdad Bounedjah, whose goal beat Senegal in the 2019 final, and Youcef Belaili scored twice each for a team ranked fourth in Africa, but arguably the best.
They look set to win Group H comfortably, but then comes the real test — succeed where recent champions Zambia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon failed and retain the trophy.
The realistic expectation among long-suffering supporters of the Pharaohs was that they would defeat Kenya at home, then travel to the Comoros and secure at least one point.
In fact, they drew both Group G matches without talisman Mohamed Salah, with a lingering ankle injury sidelining the Liverpool goal poacher.
After winning three straight Cup of Nations finals between 2006 and 2010, stars Essam el Hadary, Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Barakat, Mohamed Abou Trika and Emad Meteb gradually faded.
Egypt now rely heavily on Salah and while failure to secure a top-two finish in a group completed by Togo is unlikely, new coach Hossam el Badry has his work cut out.
Both countries are small in size and in football stature with neither having qualified for a Cup of Nations tournament.
It was no surprise then that they were among the fourth seeds, meaning they are expected to finish bottom of the final standings next November.
Perhaps both nations still will, but for now they are table toppers with the Gambia leading Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola and Comoros above Kenya, Egypt and Togo.
Gambia possess a match-winner in Switzerland-based Assan Ceesay while the Comoros are strong at home, holding top-10 teams Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana and Morocco in recent years.
Coach Nicolas Dupuis warned after a heroic run to the 2019 Cup of Nations quarter-finals that Madagascar might be one-tournament wonders given an ageing squad and poor infrastructure.
But after a tentative start to 2021 qualifying with a narrow home win over Ethiopia, they travelled to Niger and triumphed 6-2 in extremely challenging conditions.
The temperature was 39 degrees celsius (103 fahrenheit) as the match began on a rock-hard pitch and the Malagasys conceded early before a Lalaina Nomenjanahary brace turned the tide.
With a three-point lead over Ethiopia and misfiring Ivory Coast, Madagascar are virtually certain of a 2021 finals place provided they win their remaining two home fixtures.
After defying the odds by winning the 2012 final against Didier Drogba-inspired Ivory Coast after a penalty shootout, the fortunes of Zambia have plummeted.
The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) failed to get past the first round in 2013 and 2015 and did not even qualify for the next two tournaments.
A five-goal thrashing in Algeria last week was followed by a home loss to Zimbabwe, leaving Zambia pointless and desperate at the bottom of Group H.
The composition of the squad reveals part of the problem with several out-of-favour players at South African Premiership clubs, like Augustine Mulenga and Justin Shonga, chosen.
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