Cameroon took an early lead in a crunch Group D when beating Malawi 2-0 at home as rivals Ivory Coast were held goalless in Mozambique in Friday’s African World Cup qualifiers.
A confident Vincent Aboubakar finish and Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui header gave the 1990 quarter-finalists a decisive win in Yaounde and good start to a group from which only one team will reach March’s play-offs.
Seeking to extend their African record seven World Cup appearances, the Indomitable Lions clash with the Elephants in Abidjan on Monday in one of the ties of African qualifying.
Earlier on Friday, an Ivorian team bidding for a fourth World Cup had been restricted to a low-key draw in Mozambique as both sides kicked off a tantalising group.
Chances were few and far between in the Mozambican capital Maputo as the visitors – missing Premier League players Eric Bailly, Serge Aurier and Willy Boly – struggled to break down resolute hosts who fashioned few chances.
Mozambique is on the British government’s Covid red list, meaning that any player entering the United Kingdom would need to quarantine for 10 days upon their return to their clubs, which many refused to countenance.
Prior to the game, Ivory Coast coach Patrice Beaumelle said he had lost patience with a process which both the Confederation of African Football and Fifa tried to overturn in vain appeals to the British government.
One Premier League player who could play was Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho who showed his prowess when scoring two goals out of little as Nigeria kicked off their Group C with a comfortable 2-0 win over Liberia.
Playing in Lagos and with a full compliment of players available to coach Gernot Rohr, Iheanacho drilled home midway through the first half before a smart turn-and-finish sealed the win just before half-time.
Seeking a fourth straight World Cup and seventh overall, Nigeria will be without Iheanacho for their next game however as Cape Verde, who drew 1-1 with Central African Republic, is on the red list.
Nigeria will be without eight such players next Tuesday after their British clubs, including several in the Premier League, refused to release them.
Also playing on Friday evening, Tunisia went top of Group B when beating Equatorial Guinea 3-0 thanks to second-half goals from Dylann Bronn, Elyess Skhiri and a Wabhi Khazri penalty, his 20th goal in 60 internationals.
Chasing a sixth finals and to improve on a disappointing 2018 World Cup, the lively Tunisians join Zambia, who won 2-1 in Mauritania, atop the group.
Enock Mwepu coolly opened the scoring ten minutes in before Prince Mumba had a tap-in shortly after the break after the Nouakchott hosts were carved open down the left flank.
Mauritania did not give up and although they reduced arrears after substitute Amadou Niass showed fine composure after 69 minutes, their late pressure was not enough.
Blunt Bafana Bafana
In Zimbabwe, 1996 African champions South Africa were also frustrated and had to settle for a scoreless stalemate in their Group G opener.
Bafana Bafana, who went closest through a Teboho Mokoena strike from distance, failed to take advantage of the fact that Zimbabwe were missing various players.
The game was the first in charge for new South Africa coach Hugo Broos, the mastermind of Cameroon’s 2017 Africa Cup of Nations title, as he tries to lead his side to a first World Cup since 2002.
While admitting that reaching Qatar may prove a step too far, Broos will hope South Africa can create more when 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana return to Johannesburg on Monday.
The Black Stars made hard work of beating Ethiopia 1-0 in Cape Coast, gifted their winner when Mubarak Wakaso’s long-range strike was spilled by Ethiopia goalkeeper Teklemariam Shanko.
The 23-year-old was replaced at half-time following his error against a side seeking a fourth World Cup and who will be without UK-based members when playing in Cape Verde.
Only the winners of Africa’s ten qualifying groups qualify for the play-offs next March, when the continent’s five finalists for next year’s World Cup will be known.