World Cup qualifying in Africa: What did we learn?

We recap the big talking points from an engrossing week of World Cup qualifiers in Africa, as some of the continent's heavyweights took major steps towards Qatar 2022 while various sides were eliminated from the running.

New head coaches breathe new life into qualifying

Ghana and Egypt each headed into this international break under the guidance of a new head coach, in the form of Milovan Rajevac and Carlos Queiroz respectively, while South Africa continued to settle into life under Belgian boss Hugo Broos.

The winds of change certainly appear to be doing the world of good for these three African heavyweights, all of whom took maximum points from their qualifiers this week to remain firmly in the hunt for a World Cup ticket.

Even without Mohamed Salah finding the net, Egypt defeated Libya 1-0 at home before a more convincing 3-0 victory in Benghazi, and they appeared a much happier camp following the exit of Hossam El-Badry.

Ghana saw off Zimbabwe 3-1 at home in Rajevac's first game in charge since his marvellous work with the Black Stars in 2010 -- when they reached the World Cup quarterfinals -- and they followed up with another victory over the Warriors away from home.

The latter victory was less convincing, however; indeed, the hosts were on top for the first half an hour before Thomas Partey capitalised on a goalkeeping error to net his second goal in two qualifiers -- a sharp contrast to his Arsenal record -- to ensure Ghana remain hot on South Africa's heels.

Bafana Bafana lead the way in Group G, after dispatching Ethiopia home and away, and Broos will surely enjoy watching Ghana have to run the gauntlet away in Bahir Dar even if South Africa must still travel to Cape Coast for their final group game.

The former Africa Cup of Nations-winning coach will see his side growing in confidence, and, after three clean sheets in four games, he has a youthful, vibrant and hungry Bafana team taking shape.

"He gives us the freedom to play," Mamelodi Sundowns defender Rushine De Reuck said after the victory in Bahir Dar Stadium. "Everybody is happy with the way he handles the team. Everybody understands what they need to do on the field.

"If you have a coach who believes in you, then you're fighting for the team. We want him to succeed, and he wants us to succeed as well. It's easy to play for him."

Algeria's run continues

The Atlas Lions lived up to expectations by extending their remarkable unbeaten streak during the international break, demolishing Niger twice to move to 31 games without defeat.

They throttled the poor Menas 6-1 at home in Blida -- with Islam Slimani becoming the Fennecs' all-time top scorer -- before eclipsing the same opponent 4-0 in Niamey.

Sterner tests await Algeria, who aren't yet guaranteed a spot in the next round of qualifying, but an away game against manager-less Djibouti in their next qualifier is unlikely to halt their remarkable run.

For context, only three national sides in history -- Brazil (1993-96), Spain (2007-09) and Italy (2018-21) -- have played more consecutive games without losing a match than this current Algeria side.

With Italy losing against Spain in the UEFA Nations Cup semifinals, Algeria boast the longest active and ongoing unbeaten streak -- and they are only seven games from breaking the Azzurri's 37-match run; but they won't be playing Niger every time.

Senegal successes overshadowed by Ballon d'Or snubs

Senegal became the first team to progress to the second round of African World Cup qualifying when they dispatched Namibia 3-1 in Johannesburg, becoming one of only two teams -- alongside Morocco -- to retain a 100% record in doing so.

Famara Diedhiou was the hero of the week -- scoring in both matches, including a hat-trick in the 'away' fixture -- while some of Senegal's more high-profile stars were notably snubbed from the 30-man Ballon d'Or shortlist.

It was a talking point that threatened to overshadow an otherwise routine international break.

"In my case, perhaps it's understandable," Liverpool superstar Sadio Mane said in the mixed zone when asked about his omission from the shortlist.

"But in the case of [Chelsea goalkeeper] Edouard Mendy, it's not.

"I don't understand it. It's unacceptable, I don't get it, and I think it's really deplorable. It's a shame."

Mendy, who enjoyed an outstanding debut season at Chelsea, and became the first African goalkeeper to win the UEFA Champions League, was more philosophical about his own snub.

"There will always be debates, be that about myself, or about other players who are missing, or who are thought to be missing," he said in the mixed zone.

"As I said, it's the freedom of the vote of journalists; it's their freedom of expression, and you have to respect it."

Hakim who?

Morocco fans can be forgiven for getting a little over-confident at the ease with which the team has swatted aside all obstacles en route to the second round of qualifying despite being without influential Chelsea playmaker Hakim Ziyech.

Following a fall-out with manager Vahid Halilhodzic, amid a series of disciplinary misdemeanours, Ziyech has been overlooked from the past two squads in a bold -- and potentially reckless -- move by the Bosnian coach.

Without Ziyech, Morocco had hardly been a free-flowing side bubbling over with creativity, and questions were asked about whether the Atlas Lions could afford to do without his abundant gifts.

Those concerns are muted now, after the North Africans breezed into the second round with home-and-away triumphs over Guinea-Bissau and a 4-1 victory in the rescheduled meeting with Guinea.

With 14 goals scored, they have the best goalscoring record in the entire qualifying campaign -- so much for a lack of creativity -- while only Mali and Uganda have conceded fewer than their one goal.

With Ziyech absent, the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Selim Amallah, Ayoub El Kaabi and Ilias Chair have stepped up, and the Atlas Lions have most definitely rediscovered their roar.

Aubameyang's Gabon on the brink

Some of Africa's all-time greats never featured in the World Cup, with the likes of George Weah, Mohamed Aboutrika and Abedi Pele never gracing the grandest stage.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang now also appears primed to go down as a big African star who did not represent his nation at the tournament.

After a sluggish start to the qualifying campaign, it was imperative that Gabon took maximum points from Angola in their two matches in the latest round of fixtures.

Auba scored to send Gabon on their way to a 2-0 victory at home against Os Palancas Negras, but a 3-1 defeat away from home looks to have all but ended the the Panthers' World Cup dream.

Gabon can still overhaul Egypt if they win their remaining two matches and the Pharaohs lose both of theirs, and they overturn a six-goal swing in doing so, but the prognosis is looking bleak.

Now 32, Aubameyang's prospects of featuring in the world Cup finals may have been extinguished.

Nigeria making life hard for themselves

Nigeria have an excellent record of qualifying for the World Cup since their debut appearance in 1994 -- missing out only once -- but they have also had their fair share of shocking qualifying fails, and they know how to make life difficult for themselves.

There was the infamous pipping by Angola in the race for the 2006 World Cup, not to mention missing out on the 1990 edition at the hands of Cameroon -- and their failure to reach the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, when they took just one point from games against Sudan, South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville in missing the chance to defend the title.

The same isn't going to happen this time around, is it?

Nigeria redeemed themselves somewhat by defeating Central African Republic 2-0 in Douala, but the 1-0 loss to the same side in Lagos three days earlier was arguably the lowest point of Gernot Rohr's tenure.

The result marked Nigeria's first qualifying defeat at home in almost 40 matches -- stretching across 17 years -- and it exposed limitations of this current Super Eagles crop, as they failed to contend with several high-profile absentees.

They remain in pole position in Group C, and on course to advance, but this international break has convinced no one that Nigeria will be a match for the likes of Algeria, Senegal or Morocco should they progress to meet them in the March playoffs.