Friday's first leg World Cup qualifiers across Africa offered tension and tactical intrigue aplenty, with the four teams still standing from the continent's North firmly in the ascent after the first 90 minutes -- even if their performances aren't particularly encouraging ahead of Qatar.
Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia all picked up big wins against Senegal, Cameroon and Mali, respectively, while Morocco can be confident that their 1-1 draw away in the Democratic Republic of Congo gives them command of the tie heading into the return bout. In Kumasi, the only matchup not involving a North African team, Ghana held Nigeria 0-0 in a result that will leave both fancying their chances of progression come Tuesday's second leg.
Here are the key talking points from Friday's African internationals.
A World Cup without Africa's champions?
We already know that Europe's champions Italy won't be present at the World Cup after they were shocked by North Macedonia in their playoff on Thursday, but will Africa's champions also miss out on the global showpiece? It's certainly looking like a real possibility, as Senegal find themselves 1-0 down after Friday's defeat by Egypt in Cairo.
This match was billed as a rematch of the Africa Cup of Nations final last month, and, of course, a showdown between Liverpool teammates and Anfield brothers Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. It was a game low on chances, with Senegal's greater individual quality neutralised by a rugged and tenacious Egyptian approach.
After taking the early lead following Saliou Ciss's unfortunate own-goal -- as Salah's effort cannoned back off the crossbar and bounced over the line off the full-back -- the hosts were content to preserve their lead and ensure that Senegal's attacks had little oxygen. The Teranga Lions may well rue not being able to rouse themselves to the occasion and upping the ante to further take the game to their hosts, although it must be acknowledged that Egypt are experts at this kind of stifling and stymieing.
Carlos Queiroz -- back on the touchline after his AFCON final suspension -- deserves credit for restoring the unruffled Mohamed El Shenawy for Nations Cup hero Gabaski between the sticks, with the experienced stopper unfazed by the few forays forward Senegal did make.
The reigning African champions still have control of their destiny, but it's imperative that they make use of their greater individual talent and truly impose themselves on the contest in Diamniadio on Tuesday -- their first ever match on home soil as African champions. If they cannot, then neither Africa nor Europe will have their continental champions present in Qatar.
Algeria on the comeback trail ...
No African side had more to prove heading into these qualifiers than Algeria, who were desperate to bounce back after a catastrophic title defence in Cameroon earlier. All three of the Fennecs' group-stage games at the Nations Cup -- one draw and a defeat -- took place at the Stade Japoma in Douala and, as fate would have it, this was the venue for their first match after the Nations Cup, Friday's playoff.
Algeria weren't at their best, but Islam Slimani's headed goal late in the first half -- the 40th of his international career -- was all they needed to take a first-leg victory and return to winning ways. Despite their early elimination at the AFCON, Algeria still posted fantastic statistics during their opening two group fixtures, and they clearly haven't lost the qualities that underpinned their record 35-game undefeated streak overnight.
With an away victory, and having not lost a competitive game in Blida in 18 years, they are overwhelming favourites to advance.
... But Cameroon only have themselves to blame
While the Indomitable Lions were arguably flattered by their third-placed finish at the Nations Cup, there were certainly some positives to take from their performance on home soil as they clinched bronze. The optimism has ebbed away now though, however, as they struggled to find a way back into the tie in front of 40,000 fervent fans in Douala after Algeria had taken the lead.
The choice of the Stade Japoma, with its much maligned turf, rather than Cameroon's spiritual home -- the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, Yaounde -- is one decision that ought to be questioned, particularly given Algeria's recent familiarity with the venue. Similarly, while Cameroon initially showed faith with Portuguese head coach Toni Conceicao in the aftermath of the AFCON, Samuel Eto'o's decision to replace him with legend Rigobert Song only three weeks before the Algeria game always looked risky.
There was little notable strategy or improvement in Song's Cameroon, with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting -- restored to the side after a tiff with Conceicao -- struggling to influence proceedings, although they were definitely hamstrung by Vincent Aboubakar's injury in the first half.
"Algeria did not come to play," Song muttered after the match. "Our players were there to play, our aim was to play.
"[In] football, if you put seven people behind it, it's complicated," he complained, but if that strategy takes Algeria to the World Cup, few will have sympathy with Song's excuses.
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access
Are Morocco missing Ziyech?
The knives would have been out for Vahid Halilhodzic (again) if Morocco hadn't equalised in their first leg against the DRC on Friday, with the under-pressure Bosnian coach ultimately saved by substitute Tarik Tissoudali's 76th-minute equaliser. The 28-year-old wide man, who made his international debut at the Nations Cup, has been made to wait to make his mark with the Atlas Lions in a career that has had its fair share of twists and turns.
Performances like his, and that of tenacious centre-back Romain Saiss or selfless forward Ayoub El Kaabi, offer hope that Morocco could still reach the knockouts at the World Cup without Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech. He, like Noussair Mazraoui of Ajax Amsterdam and Marseille's Amine Harit, are out of the international reckoning after falling foul of Halilhodzic, and the absence of Ziyech in particular has become an albatross around the head coach's neck.
When Morocco struggled to dispatch Comoros or Gabon at the AFCON, the finger was pointed at the decision not to call up the Chelsea star. So too when Morocco fell to Egypt in the knockouts. Ryan Mmaee's 55th-minute missed penalty against Congo will surely give the head coach's critics extra fuel, with Ziyech likely to have been on spot-kick duties had he featured.
Nonetheless, if Morocco are struggling to break down a limited Congo team, then there is reason to doubt whether they can trouble the world's best in Qatar. They scraped by this challenge without the Chelsea man, but their unconvincing display going forward provided yet further evidence that a successor to Ziyech must be identified if Morocco are to rise above mediocrity.
Ndidi absence gives Ghana hope
Perhaps no tie is more in the balance than the West African derby between Ghana and Nigeria, after the pair played out a 0-0 draw in Kumasi. Both will have reasons for optimism.
After a dreadful Nations Cup, the Black Stars were much improved under Otto Addo -- actually looking like they had a coherent strategy -- while the Super Eagles, who have home advantage in the second leg, will be relieved that they weren't undone at the Baba Yara Stadium, the graveyard for several fine sides over the years.
Nigeria have home support in the next leg, but arguably not the advantage, with Ghana knowing how valuable an away goal could be. They'll also be emboldened by their performance in the midfield, where a trio of Thomas Partey, Iddrisu Baba and Mohammed Kudus impressed against Nigeria's pair.
Without injured Wilfred Ndidi, the Super Eagles are missing arguably their most influential player, and, despite his promise, FC Lorient's Innocent Bonke is a far inferior version of the Leicester City man. A combination of Ndidi's absence and Ghana's extra man in midfield completed ceded initiative to the Black Stars, and if Augustine Eguavoen doesn't correct his errors in the return leg, then Nigeria could be Africa's most high-profile World Cup absentees.
Ivory Coast could have done Africa proud in Qatar
Finally, while few of the African sides still standing in World Cup qualifying actually did themselves credit in Friday's playoffs -- albeit in testing circumstances -- the Ivory Coast gave a magnificent account of themselves in a friendly against France in Marseille. Patrice Beaumelle's Elephants may have been defeated 2-1, but the reigning world champions only won the contest in the 93rd minute through Aurelien Tchouameni, and the Elephants thrived in a vibrant Stade Velodrome.
"I'm proud," the French coach said after the West Africans' first match since their Nations Cup exit by Egypt. "We showed we have a great team who are capable of competing with the best and even of playing attractive football.
"I'm still working on the details, but definitely in the long term, while I'm at the head of this team, I won't let go. This team has a soul. I hope we'll be rewarded in the future."
The Elephants, defeated by Cameroon in their final qualifying group game, are out of the running for Qatar, but Friday's loss was a tantalising glimpse of what they could have achieved against some of the world's finest later this year.