KweséESPN takes a look at the biggest winners and losers after the first four match days of Africa Cup of Nations 2019 qualifying.
There can be no bigger winner than Madagascar, who became the first country to qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. The homeland of the CAF president did so in record-breaking style -- first, with two full games to spare, and doing so for the first time in their history. Great news for the country, although television commentators will be hard-pressed to agree, considering the long, tongue-twisting names they will now have to contend with. It is a remarkable achievement for the country, and one which continues a growing recent history of small countries shaking their fists at their bigger brothers. Speaking of big brothers, other winners in this category are big guns like Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal, who have also confirmed their tickets to Cameroon.
"It is never too early to start winning. But it is always too early to start losing." At the end of match-day one, things looked dire for the Super Eagles. An inexperienced team decimated by injuries and withdrawals were beaten 2-0 at home to South Africa, and the prospect of missing out on a third consecutive Nations Cup was a real danger. But by the end of match-day five, Africa's aristocrats had jumped from third place to first, helped by three consecutive wins, and South Africa being, well ... South Africa. Bafana Bafana won handsomely against Seychelles by a country record 6-0 scoreline, then three days later failed to find the net against the same opposition. Nigeria now need just one point from their remaining two fixtures to book their place.
Newbies Making a Mark
Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda are poised to swell the qualifying ranks by match-day 5. Even if they do not, they can still confirm their places in the final round of matches next March. And it is all thanks to a run of good results this double-header match-days. Zimbabwe stunned the DRC with a road win, their first home loss in decades, and then consolidated with a draw three days later. The results mean Zimbabwe only need a point to advance. In Uganda, coach Sebastien Desabre appears to be doing some capital work with the Cranes, one that has them with one foot in Cameroon. Kenya are in the same position. Ghana are the only side that can deny them of group leadership, but not the ticket, irrespective of what happens with Sierra Leone. Emmanuel Amunike earned his first win as Tanzania coach, taking them to second on the log behind Uganda. While tricky games against Lesotho away and Uganda at home remain to be negotiated, nothing is guaranteed. But just being in with a shout should be cause for confidence
South Africa and Libya must wish this weekend never happened. Coming into this round of matches as frontrunners, with Libya on top and South Africa behind them, there would have been plenty of optimism, especially for Bafana Bafana against minnows Seychelles. By the time the smoke cleared, Libya had suffered back-to-back losses and dropped to third. South Africa had experienced the high of winning big and then failing to consolidate. They surrendered their temporary leadership and both will now have to battle for the second qualifying spot. Morocco should also have been brandishing their finals tickets by the end of this match-day. Instead they huffed and puffed against tiny Comoros, needing a last-minute penalty to win at home, and then conceding a late equaliser three days later.
How Zambia are bottom of a group that has Guinea Bissau, Namibia and Mozambique is mind-blowing. But Chipolopolo appear to be their own worst enemies. Like Nigeria, they opened their campaign with a home loss. More embarrassing to the 2012 champions is who they lost to ... Mozambique. Unlike Nigeria, they haven't quite found a way to recover. Drawing away at Namibia on match-day two looked like a good first step. And when they topped group leaders Guinea Bissau 2-1, it looked like they had turned the corner. But surrendering an early lead to lose 2-1 at Guinea Bissau put them in a tight spot. There is still slight hope for qualification if they win their last two games, but on the evidence so far, those bullets look more plastic than copper.
Not that they were expected to qualify with all the in-fighting going on within the country's federation, but Sierra Leone were expected to at least turn up, even to make an attempt. Or at least give Ghana's Black Stars the chance to put pressure on Kenya. Instead, the Sierra Leone team had their game cancelled after FIFA banned the country's federation over third party interference. Ghana, facing an internal inquisition of their own, were forced to sit on their hands and await a decision on whether they will be awarded the points.