The Super Eagles begin their campaign for a return to Africa’s football showpiece in a 2019 African Cup of Nations qualifier against Bafana Bafana at the Akwa Ibom Stadium, Uyo, on Saturday.
Three-time African champions Nigeria are seeking a return to AFCON after their absence at the last two editions of the competition. After their continental triumph in South Africa in 2013, the Eagles missed out on the 2015 and 2017 editions in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon respectively.
The Eagles, winners of the AFCON in 1980, 1994 and 2013, have appeared at the competition 17 times and will hope to secure their 18th appearance in Cameroon at the expense of their other opponents in Group E. The other teams in the group are Seychelles and Libya.
Bafana are also seeking a return to the AFCON after missing out on the competition in 2017. After hosting in 2013, the South Africans failed to advance from their group at Equatorial Guinea 2015. The 1996 champions are now seeking their ninth appearance at the continental event in Cameroon 2019.
Nigeria and South Africa have met nine times in competitive games, the latest of which was a 2-2 draw in a 2015 AFCON qualifier in Uyo on November 19, 2014, which ended the Eagles’ hope of qualification. The South Africans finished atop the group while the Eagles were third behind Congo.
The Eagles have won six of the nine meetings and have lost none. Three of the previous meetings have ended in a draw. But the South Africans boast of one win against the Nigerians, 2-1 triumph in a friendly tie in 2004.
With the recent return of Englishman Stuart Baxter as Bafana coach, the South Africans will prove much of a threat to the ambitions of the Eagles. The match is Baxter’s first assignment since taking charge of the team in May. South Africa have won only two of their last five matches – they have played four friendly matches and one World Cup qualifier since October 2016. They played a goalless draw with Angola in a friendly on March 28.
But since German coach, Gernot Rohr, took over as Eagles coach in 2016, Nigeria have yet to lose a match. The Eagles have recorded victories in their World Cup qualifying matches as well as two draws and a win in their friendly matches. The Eagles’ last match was a 3-0 win over Togo in Paris on June 1.
Going into the match, Rohr called up 23 players, who were drawn from an initial list for the friendlies against Corsica and Togo. Although the former Niger coach left out China-based trio captain Mikel Obi, Brown Ideye and Odion Ighalo, he called up relatively unknown Zamalek defender, Maroof Youssef.
Rohr is also faced with the dilemma of his first choice goalkeeper after the injury of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Carl Ikeme but South Africa-based Daniel Akpeyi could start against the visitors. Also out is exciting Chelsea wing-back Victor Moses, who had an excellent season helping the Blues win the EPL but was left out of Rohr’s squad due to an injury.
Nigeria will be banking on the current form of Manchester City forward, Kelechi Iheanacho, who has been prolific for the national team. The 2013 U-17 World Cup winner has scored in seven of the Eagles’ last eight matches including the third goal in the 3-0 win over Togo in Paris.
Other players in the Eagles squad are stand-in captain Ogenyi Onazi, Elderson Echiejile, home-based duo Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Ibrahim Alhassan, Portugal-based duo Oghenekaro Etebo and Mikel Agu, Leicester City duo Ahmed Musa and Wilfred Ndidi, Turkey-based Kenneth Omeruo as well as goalkeeper Dele Alampasu and William Troost-Ekong. Abdullahi Shehu, KAS Eupen striker, Henry Onyekuru, Wolfsburg’s Victor Osimhen, newcomers Tyronne Ebuehi and Chidozie Awaziem, John Ogu, Uche Agbo, Moses Simon, Olanrewaju Kayode and Alex Iwobi, complete the squad.
Baxter will depend on now-fit Genclerbirligi striker, Tokelo Rantie, who scored Bafana’s brace in the 2-2 draw in Uyo in the last meeting between the two sides in 2014. Experienced Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune in the Premier Soccer League is also expected to be in goal on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Baxter hopes to frustrate the Eagles in Uyo.
“We are ready after we had a few injury scares. We would have wanted a longer preparation but it’s not a perfect world, so we just have to get on with it. I know quite a bit about the Eagles. We respect them because of their history and they are putting together a new team who have been quite successful but we can cause an upset and we will do all we can to get a positive result,” Baxter was quoted as saying by Scorenigeria.com.ng.
But Onazi said he is optimistic the Eagles would rise to the occasion.
He said, “It is a big game, and we are one for the big occasion. I have confidence in the team that we have now and the ambition oozing in the camp. We want to go to the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations. Starting well on Saturday will be important to our aspiration.”
However, former Nigeria coach, Adegboye Onigbinde, called for caution from the Eagles.
He said, “The South Africans are also going for the same target as Nigeria and the coach knows that. He knows the right tactics to employ to get the desired results. He has been doing well and Saturday shouldn’t be different. They only need to be careful and play well to get the win.”