Riyad Mahrez scored twice but Algeria could only draw with outsiders Zimbabwe while Senegal got the first win of the Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday.
Mahrez put Algeria ahead in the Group B opener in Franceville in south-eastern Gabon but then needed to score a late equaliser to secure a 2-2 draw for one of the tournament favourites.
Senegal, another fancied side thanks to their status as the top-ranked African team in the Fifa rankings, saw Liverpool winger Sadio Mane set them on their way to a 2-0 victory against Tunisia.
That result left them in control of the section while Algeria were left bemoaning a missed opportunity.
“We only have ourselves to blame. We need to keep working and play well in the second match against Tunisia,” said Leicester City star Mahrez.
A day after hosts Gabon were held to a 1-1 draw by minnows Guinea-Bissau in the capital Libreville as the tournament got underway, there was a sparse crowd as the action moved to the 20 000-seat stadium in Franceville.
Many locals chose to give the games a miss amid calls from opponents of the government in Gabon to boycott the Cup of Nations.
Those who were there witnessed a cracking match between Algeria and rank outsiders Zimbabwe, with Mahrez curling in a fine early opener.
The Warriors, whose build-up to the finals was overshadowed by a row over bonuses, quickly equalised when Kudakwashe Mahachi fired in and they then went ahead with a penalty before the half-hour mark scored by Nyasha Mushekwi.
Algeria hit the bar twice in the second half, once through Ramy Bensebaini and then when Elisha Muroiwa struck the frame of his own goal as he attempted to clear a cross.
They were just eight minutes away from a humiliating defeat before Mahrez drove in from 20 yards to make it 2-2.
“We knew the first match was going to be difficult,” added Mahrez.
“We didn’t perform in the first half but played very well in the second half and should have scored several more goals.”
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe coach Callisto Pasuwa was delighted to see his side prove they could mix it with the continent’s supposed finest.
“When I was asked who was the favourite and said Zimbabwe, everyone laughed at me. But in this group there is no small team,” he said.
“I hope the point obtained here will motivate my players to do even better in our next match against Senegal.”
Ivorians set for trophy defence
Mane came third in the African player of the year awards behind winner Mahrez and Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
And after those two had scored in their countries’ opening games, Mane followed their example by getting the breakthrough against Tunisia.
He sent Tunisian goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi the wrong way from the spot after Aymen Abdennour had brought down Cheikhou Kouyate.
Kara Mbodj then soared above the Tunisian defence to head home from a corner and make it 2-0 on the half-hour.
Mbodj struck his own bar in the second half while Ismaila Sarr nearly added to Senegal’s lead, hitting the frame of the goal with a cross.
On Monday, the action moves to the northern city of Oyem as reigning champions the Ivory Coast begin their defence of the trophy against Togo, for whom Emmanuel Adebayor remains the star man, at 4pm
At 7pm, Herve Renard, the French coach of the Ivorian side that won the tournament in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, leads Morocco into their opening game against DR Congo.
The Congolese have put a row over unpaid bonuses, which led them to boycott training on Friday, behind them in time for the game.
“Our demands were listened to,” said Leopards captain Youssouf Mulumbu.
“In recent days people have talked about us more in terms of the bonuses and strikes, but now we need to concentrate more on the football.”