Africa's World Cup qualifying: Rwanda, Comoros in top spots, Ivory Coast win 9-0

Mohamed Salah will characteristically key to Egypt's AFCON campaign. Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Africa's biggest sides endured a troubled end to the 2023 international sporting calendar as -- for several of the continent's would-be giants -- World Cup qualification got off to a rocky start.

While the big boys stumbled, some of Africa's minnows are sitting pretty after two gameweeks, although it's still far too early to predict any of the lesser lights qualifying for the 2026 tournament.

Here are our biggest talking points after a pulsating international break across Africa.

Salah making up for lost time?

Joint top scorer across Africa during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Mohamed Salah appeared -- at times -- to be on a one-man mission to drag the Pharaohs to the tournament in Russia.

He failed to leave his mark on that tournament due to injury and, with Egypt having missed out on Qatar after playoff defeat by Senegal, the Liverpool great remains wholly unfulfilled on the grandest stage.

Now 31, and eyeing one final shot at the Mondial, Salah certainly set the tone for Rui Vitoria's side to kick off the 2026 campaign by netting four goals in 52 minutes as the Pharaohs demolished poor Djibouti 6-0.

Feeble opponents, perhaps, but it was a nonetheless sublime display by Salah, who once again -- as he did back in 2017 -- sits atop the qualification scoring charts after two gameweeks.

Arguably more impressively, he played a key role -- a pre-assist and an assist -- for Mahmoud Trezeguet's double in the 2-0 away victory at Burkina Faso, on paper, the Pharaohs' most ominous fixture.

At this rate, expect to see Salah -- who will turn 34 during the 2026 tournament -- get one final shot to light up the World Cup.

And Mane not far behind?

They may no longer be conjoined in outdoing Premier League defences at Liverpool, but Salah and Sadio Mane continue to set the standard across CAF competitions.

Now with Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr, Mane too has a point to prove at the World Cup, having missed Senegal's run to the Last 16 last year due to injury sustained with Bayern Munich on the eve of the tournament.

Like Salah, he'll be in veteran territory come 2026, but with fitness problems now behind him, he's re-taken his place as the talisman of this Senegal side.

On Saturday he netted twice as South Sudan were put to the sword in a 4-0 defeat, although Africa's champions found the going much tougher as they were held 0-0 by Togo in their second group game.

That stalemate will certainly give Aliou Cisse food for thought ahead of the Teranga Lions' title defence in next year's Africa Cup of Nations.

North Africa shaping up for strong AFCON campaigns

As well as Egypt, North African powerhouses Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco all enjoy a 100-percent record in World Cup qualifying so far, with all three reaffirming their AFCON credentials ahead of the January tournament.

Tunisia cruised past Sao Tome e Principe 4-0 in Tunis, before an 87th-minute Youssef Msakni penalty ensured all three points away in Malawi, while Algeria also left it late against Mozambique -- scoring twice in the final 21 minutes in Maputo - having downed Somalia 3-1 in their opener.

Morocco may have only played one competitive fixture this week following the withdrawal of Eritrea, but they still navigated a testing away trip in Tanzania, winning 2-0 as they embark on another (magical?) World Cup journey.

Hakim Ziyech, one of the squad that reached the semifinals last year, opened the scoring in the 28th minute after Achraf Hakimi, potentially inspired by the Rugby World Cup, fired a second-minute penalty haplessly over the bar.

With the veterans of 2022 looking to add AFCON glory to their World Cup heroics, and new blood like teenager Bilal El Khannous looking every bit consummate internationals, Morocco ought to be considered genuine contenders for next year's showpiece.

Rwanda end Broos's Bafana streak

Arguably the biggest winners of the international break are Rwanda who -- with a fifth of the fixtures behind them -- sit atop a group containing multi-time World Cup qualifiers Nigeria and South Africa.

Could Rwanda -- ranked 140 in the world -- really be set to represent Africa in Canada/Mexico/USA?

Well, early days of course, but there were certainly reasons for genuine optimism after a 0-0 home draw with Zimbabwe and a 2-0 defeat of South Africa in Butare.

Bafana Bafana may point to the synthetic pitch at the Stade Huye as a reason for Tuesday's upset, but Rwanda deserve credit for capitalising on the visitors' uncertainty -- and a hapless defensive display by Hugo Broos's side.

Now guided by Torsten Spittler -- formerly head coach of Bhutan and Nepal -- Rwanda must ensure they build on their strong start in June's away clashes against Benin and Lesotho.

For Broos, defeat means the end of an encouraging 12-game undefeated streak -- a first loss since June 2022 -- and he must now address his defence's failings ahead of the Nations Cup.

Nigeria's own humbling draws with Zimbabwe and, particularly, 153rd-ranked Lesotho, should also give both Bafana and Rwanda succour that they can remain in the hunt for a qualification berth.

New boy Maolida sends Comoros top

Like Rwanda, Comoros -- another one of Africa's tiniest territories -- will also now spend the next seven months at the top of their qualifying pool having taken a maximum two points from their opening two matches.

The archipelago nation followed up a thrilling 4-2 home victory over the Central African Republic on Friday by dispatching old foe Ghana 1-0, with a new arrival on the scene to thank for their latest victory over the Black Stars.

Helped, certainly, by beginning their campaign with back-to-back home games in Moroni, Comoros are nonetheless a thoroughly well-organised outfit, with Italian head coach Stefano Cusin continuing the excellent work of his predecessor Amir Abdou.

Not bad for a country ranked 129th in FIFA, who are only taking part in their fifth qualifying campaign, while Cusin has succeeded in convincing Hertha Berlin's Myziane Maolida to commit his future to Comoros.

In the ex-OGC Nice man, the minnows certainly have a new hero on their hands.

A France youth level from U-16 to U-21 level, Maolida has been on the Coelacanthes' radar since his time with Olympique Lyonnais, and, at 24, made his debut against CAR.

His sensational solo winner against Ghana -- following a slaloming dribble through the heart of the Black Stars' defence -- was a perfect way to introduce himself.

More Comorian misery for Black Stars

For Ghana, however, another match-up with the Comoros meant another bitter defeat, with the Black Stars' loss prompting memories of their capitulation against the same opponents during the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

On that occasion, the tiny island nation dumped the four-time African champions out of the continental showpiece, and even Chris Hughton's decision to restore Andre Ayew to the starting XI wasn't able to help Ghana avoid a repeat.

The poor playing surface in Moroni represented one mitigating circumstance, but Hughton's claim that Ghana were the "better team over 90 minutes" offered scant consolation.

It's far too early to write off the West Africans for the World Cup, particularly after they defeated Madagascar in their group opener following Inaki Williams' first international goal. However, Hughton is facing increasing supporter discontent over his perceived conservatism, especially with such an exciting crop of young players at his disposal.

Ivorians in pole position

Perhaps none of Africa's teams appear -- already -- better placed to reach the World Cup than the Ivory Coast, who ran riot in a 9-0 obliteration of Seychelles in Abidjan on November 17.

With the likes of Sebastien Haller, Hamed Traore and Simon Adingra among the scorers, the Elephants flexed their offensive muscles -- and got supporters in the mood -- ahead of the Nations Cup on home soil, as they set about making amends for their recent World Cup failures.

They were the biggest African side not to make even the CAF playoffs on the road to Qatar, missing out on a second consecutive World Cup after reaching three successive tournaments between 2006 and 2014.

There should be no such failure this time.

Not only can they point to a favourable group, but following up their thumping of the Seychelles with a 2-0 triumph against The Gambia in neutral Tanzania demonstrated that Jean-Louis Gasset's side may finally be finding the grit and character to underpin their undisputed attacking class.