Nigeria shrugged off travel weariness and missing stars to defeat Kenya 1-0 on Wednesday and take a significant step toward reaching the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The triumph in Kasarani gave the Super Eagles a two-point Group F lead as closest challengers Malawi could only draw 0-0 at home to third-placed Namibia.
Diminutive Russia-based Ahmed Musa, 20, was Nigeria’s star as his 81st-minute goal sunk bottom-of-the-table Kenya before a capacity crowd at the Moi International Sports Centre.
Nigeria have eight points, Malawi six, Namibia four and Kenya two after four rounds and only the group winners stay in the hunt to fill one of five places reserved for Africa at the finals next year.
The African champions play in Namibia on Wednesday next week and even a draw there would leave them well-positioned to make the final qualifying round, which comprises five two-leg ties.
After holding Nigeria in Calabar three months ago in the competitive debut of Belgium-born coach Adel Amrouche, Kenya had high hopes of a first victory over the west African giants.
Even the absence of suspended pair, goalkeeper Arnold Origi and striker and captain Dennis Oliech, and injured midfielder McDonald Mariga did not dilute the Harambee Stars confidence, but Nigeria, fielding nine of the team that began the Africa Cup of Nations final triumph over Burkina Faso in Soweto, South Africa, in February, cast aside their problems to generally look the likelier winners.
A friendly draw with Mexico in the US last weekend meant the Super Eagles arrived in Nairobi weary after two flights across the Atlantic and another deep into east Africa.
Injuries sidelined two Africa Cup stars — Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses and Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike — for the World Cup qualifiers and the FIFA Confederations Cup later this month.
Turkey-based Ikechukwu Uche, who replaced injured Emenike for the Cup of Nations final, was another notable absentee.
After a dour first half on a bumpy Nairobi pitch, Nigeria came close when Kenya goalkeeper Duncan Ochieng was left exposed and a Nnamdi Oduamadi shot had to be scrambled clear.
Musa was off target as pressure mounted on the hosts, but he atoned nine minutes from time by lobbing a long ball from Celtic defender Efe Ambrose over Ochieng.
After winning in Namibia last March, Malawi were favored to complete a double over injury-weakened Namibia on an artificial Kamuzu Stadium pitch in commercial capital Blantyre.
Veteran striker Esau Kanyenda came closest to breaking the deadlock 10 minutes from time when his header eluded goalkeeper Virgill Vries, only to rebound off the woodwork.
The Malawi Flames host Kenya at the same venue, before completing their group schedule away to four-time World Cup qualifiers Nigeria in September.