AFCON observations: Eto'o's hairdryer, Salah's defiance, Nigeria's optimism

Nigeria forward Moses Simon chases the ball in the Africa Cup of Nations 2023 qualifier against Sierra Leone at Moshood Abiola Stadium in Abuja, Nigeria. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

The Africa Cup of Nations 2023 qualifying campaign got underway for the biggest sides in this international break, as the six-match group-stage program kicked off.

For some of Africa's biggest sides, the opening two rounds of fixtures represented a first opportunity to bounce back after a poor AFCON in Cameroon or failure to reach the World Cup.

For the five teams bound for Qatar, meanwhile, this international break provided a valuable opportunity to tweak their strategy, integrate new (or old) players to the fold, and boost team morale before representing the continent later this year.

Here are the big talking points -- and the lessons learned -- from the opening two rounds of AFCON 2023 group stage qualification.

Nigeria optimistic for Jose Peseiro

It's been a messy season for Nigeria's Super Eagles, who belatedly -- or prematurely, depending on who you ask -- parted ways with head coach Gernot Rohr, lost their steam during the AFCON, and were bundled out of World Cup contention by regional rivals Ghana.

Amidst all of this, they bungled the appointment of Rohr's successor -- announcing Jose Peseiro to helm the national side only to allow Augustine Eguavoen to take the reins for the AFCON, then the Qatar playoffs, before returning to the Portuguese coach in the aftermath of the Ghana debacle.

If Peseiro is the man for Nigeria's future, then surely he should have been the man for the exploits of early 2022? If the Nigeria Football Federation didn't trust him entirely, then why appoint him at all?

Ultimately, the 62-year-old -- whose CV hasn't particularly convinced Eagles fans of his pedigree -- entered the international window finally able to make his mark, although enthusiasm might have been was dampened by consecutive friendly defeats by Mexico and Ecuador.

The 2-1 come-from-behind victory against Sierra Leone -- who had caused Nigeria considerable problems during the 2021 qualifying campaign, and recovered from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 -- was an encouraging start, but that didn't hint at the 10-0 evisceration of Sao Tome e Principe that supporters would enjoy on Monday.

Of course, the islanders are Africa's fifth worst-ranked team -- the world No. 183 -- but Nigeria's all-time record victory and the biggest all-time AFCON qualifying scoreline in only his second competitive match in charge is a major feather for Peseiro's cap.

The likes of Ghana and South Africa haven't had it as easy against the Falcons in recent years, and there were many specific positives to take from the rout.

Ademola Lookman's menace was encouraging, Peter Etebo delivered the kind of performance we haven't seen from him in years in the midfield, Alex Iwobi looked motivated, and Emmanuel Dennis scored his first international goal.

Nigeria's inventive set pieces suddenly carried a threat -- directly and indirectly -- while the team appeared more unified, energised and proactive than in recent months; Peseiro can take credit for this.

Victor Osimhen scored four goals to remind Nigeria what they missed in his absence from the Nations Cup, and Rashidi Yekini's long-standing record of 37 international goals looks in greater threat his every passing performance.

Greater challenges lie in wait, but back-to-back wins, and the nature of the Sao Tome demolition, has fuelled optimism that Peseiro may prove to be the best person to draw the best out of such a talented collection of Super Eagles.

- Udoh: Nigeria just getting started under coach Jose Peseiro
- Hunter: Barca need the fire Samuel Eto'o gave to them as a player

Morocco swell the ranks

Perhaps no African nation had a better international break than Morocco, whose qualifying campaign got off to a perfect start with back-to-back victories over South Africa and Liberia.

Considering Zimbabwe have already been disqualified from the competition, meaning two qualify from the three teams in the group, Morocco's six points already have them on the brink of next year's AFCON.

Also encouraging over the last week has been the performance of Sevilla's Youssef En-Nesyri.

He was clearly short of sharpness at the Nations Cup, and he scored only five goals in LaLiga this term, down from 18 in the previous season, but he netted in both qualifiers to give a vital confidence boost ahead of the World Cup.

Arguably more important than Morocco's strong start to the program and the form of En-Nesyri was the return to the fold of several players who had been alienated by head coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

Noussair Mazraoui and Amine Harit were jettisoned by the Bosnian head coach ahead of the Nations Cup, but they had to reassess their relationships with Halilhodzic after he received the Royal Moroccan Federation's backing after the AFCON and then secured World Cup qualification.

They were recalled for this international break, with Harit making his first appearance since November 2020 having rediscovered his form at Marseille.

Injury ultimately denied Mazraoui the chance to rejoin the squad, but he appears primed to take his place for Qatar, while veteran Adel Taarabt also returned having been overlooked for the AFCON.

Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech appeared to lead the rebellion against Halilhodzic, but Morocco supporters are uncertin be will be tempted back to the fold in time for the World Cup.

Eto'o's own goal

It's a rarity in football these days to see managers and head coaches lambast their players in public, with such visible dressing downs a very clear and evident threat to team harmony.

It's even rarer to see a football administrator or FA president taking aim at his own charges, yet that's exactly what Cameroon's new football chief, Samuel Eto'o, did to the Indomitable Lions this international break.

Fresh from an admittedly unconvincing victory over Burundi, Eto'o suggested he'd happily play "children" in the place of underperforming Cameroon players.

"I am not happy," Eto'o said.

"I don't care who you play against; you represent Cameroon. I am not happy at all In my time, I missed the World Cup because I knew what problems I had. Those problems won't repeat themselves while I'm president. Places in this team will be earned. Nobody, I repeat, nobody has a place guaranteed in this team. You must do your job. Whoever comes here to wear this shirt must do the job, else he goes and I will be happy to have the children play."

Eto'o's words of encouragement and impassioned team talks have been one of the themes of his presidency, underpinning Cameroon's progress to the Nations Cup semifinals and their World Cup playoff victory over Algeria. But it's a risk for the ex-Barcelona star to hammer his players and then for his sermon to have been published by FECAFOOT TV, as this "motivation" surely risks destabilising the Cameroon camp or at least breaking the unity and togetherness that have characterised Eto'o's reign.

"I sat where you are years ago," he said.

"I know some of you are thinking 'he is stupid', but I tell you I was the best. You sit here and have no idea about the battles I fight for you."

Imagine what he'd have said if they'd have lost...

Cisse blesses Mane's Bayern move

Senegal's qualifying fixtures almost felt like a subplot at times over the past few weeks, as scrutiny intensifies on Sadio Mane and his club future.

As the man whose winning penalty secured Senegal their first Nations Cup title, Mane's imminent transfer from Liverpool to Bayern Munich (or elsewhere) will be the biggest deal in history involving a Senegalese player -- eclipsing El Hadji Diouf's move to Anfield in 2002.

He netted four goals across two qualifiers -- a hat-trick against Benin and a 98th-minute penalty winner against Rwanda -- to give Senegal the ideal start to the campaign and give Bayern a further glimpse of the talent they're in line to snare.

AFCON-winning coach Aliou Cisse weighed in on Mane's future, appearing to give his blessing to a switch to the Bundesliga.

"It's not only Sadio, I talk for all players who are in the situation where they have to find a club," Cisse said. "It's complicated, because there are these problems and the World Cup is approaching in November.

"I tell my boys to try and resolve their contractual issues so that, when their leagues resume, they will already be ready to kick off.

"I've heard talk about Sadio to Bayern, and for me it's a club of his standing. There's an intensity there and [they play] pressing football with a German coach. For me, the club where he'll feel the best, is Bayern."

At least Mane knows he has his boss's backing if Liverpool and the Bavarians can settle on a fee.

Egypt limited without rebellious Salah

Mohamed Salah had been expected to begin Egypt's regeneration after a dramatic end to the season, which included several individual awards despite Liverpool's failure to win either the Premier League or UEFA Champions League.

The Pharaohs were defeated in the Nations Cup final by Senegal after a gruelling route in the competition, and they were then dumped out of the running for the World Cup when they were again defeated by the Teranga Lions in a penalty shootout.

Salah defied Liverpool, who had wanted him to undergo a scan on an unidentified injury, to play in the Pharaohs' unconvincing victory over Naby Keita's Guinea, but he was subsequently ruled out of the rest of the international break after picking up a muscle strain.

This meant that he sat out the clash with Ethiopia, and Egypt, shorn of various prominent players, were humbled in a 2-0 defeat before Tuesday's 4-1 friendly thumping by South Korea.

Egypt are bottom of their AFCON group after two matches, with three points, and it remains to be seen if head coach Ehab Galal will last beyond the September qualifiers.

The Egyptian Football Association appointed the ex-SC Zamalek boss as Carlos Queiroz's successor only in April but already officials are batting off suggestions that his dismissal may be imminent.