After missing out on the last two editions, the Super Eagles of Nigeria returned to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) hoping to reclaim the status of African champions.
Twenty-four countries, for the first time in history, would be competing for the continent’s most prestigious football trophy from 21 June to 19 July, 2019, in Egypt – the competition’s most successful country.
Grouped alongside Guinea, and debutants Burundi and Madagascar to play in Borg El-Arab Stadium, Alexandria, the Eagles are fancied by pundits to finish top of Group B; but head coach of the side, Gernot Rohr, is wary of the Barea and The Swallows.
The two-top-placed teams in each group of six, as well as the best four-third-placed teams, will qualify for the knock-out stages.
“It’s good to see new countries, with the enthusiasm that they can bring to this African Cup of Nations,” Rohr told BBC after the draw for the competition in Cairo.
He added, “Madagascar (Barea), I know them very well – my wife is from Madagascar.
“There are no easy matches for us, we never underrate anybody. But I hope we can come out of this group and go as far as possible.”
While Rohr may have tacitly played down hopes of his team winning the title, the President of the Nigeria football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick, was explicit in his expectation.
“When you have a child and prepare him for an exam, your expectation is for the child to excel and that is the same expectation I have for the Super Eagles at the upcoming Nations Cup in Egypt,” Pinnick said.
“I expect them to go and compete for the trophy, nothing more, nothing less.”
Pinnick’s thinking is not out of place as the Eagles are in the top-four lot of highest ranked African teams. If they pull out all the stops in the Maghreb nation, they could emerge as African champs for the fourth time.
But former Nigeria international Samson Siasia does not believe the team can win the title. While commending the coach for doing a “great job” by building a young side, Siasia, who won the AFCON title with the Eagles in 1994, said: “I don’t think the team is formidable enough to be African champions just yet.”
What then should the NFF and Rohr be doing to ensure that the Nigerian squad is in the right fettle for the tournament?
Eagles need quality tune-ups. This, no doubt, helps to improve team’s bonding. The friendly with Egypt in March was a step in the right direction as it was the game in which little-known Paul Onuachu caught the fancy of many with a delightful strike. Besides the revelation of the Denmark-based striker, the Nigerian side played with a lot more fire, zest and purpose than they did in their final 2019 AFCON qualifier against Seychelles in Asaba, Delta state.
In addition to adequate preparation for the tournament, the three-time African champions cannot afford to be complacent. Burundi and Madagascar, as debutants, have little or nothing to lose. They can cause upsets. Therefore, Rohr’s men must not hesitate to put their opponents to the sword because the ultimate focus on the group would be on them. Rohr should also set up his team to effectively play the ‘Nigerian way.’
Traditionally, the Eagles operate from the wings. Little wonder, they are called ‘Eagles.’ Back in the day, when the team was dominant on the continent, they had natural left-footers who were always linking up with attackers to find the back of the net.
When the Eagles won the AFCON title in 1980, they had Adokiye Amiesimaka, who was very good with his left foot, and Segun Odegbami, who pulled the strings from the right. Similarly, Emmanuel Amuneke and Finidi George, and Victor Moses caused many troubles for their opponents as Nigeria won the title in 1994 and 2013.
To this end, Rohr should consider 19-year-old winger Samuel Chukwueze since the Eagles handler has yet to find a playmaker in the middle. The FIFA U-17 World Cup winner, who plays for Spanish side Villarreal, has been Nigeria’s most in-form player this season, with many believing he could be Rohr’s joker in Egypt.
by John Andah
Photo Credit: Goal.com