Next month marks the 11-year anniversary of Nigeria’s last success in the Africa Cup of Nations but, remarkably, this year’s tournament will be only the third that they have entered since beating Burkina Faso 1-0 in that 2013 final. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 editions before a third-place finish in 2019 was followed by a Round of 16 exit in the 2021 AFCON.
Now, they are heading into the continent’s showpiece event, taking place in the Ivory Coast this year, as seventh-favourites (10/1) to take home the trophy. As one of Africa’s richest countries, one which has produced the likes of Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha, and won the tournament four times - behind only Egypt (seven), Cameroon (five) and Ghana (four) - it’s a sign of the times that they have been overtaken in the running by North African countries like Morocco and Algeria.
But with a squad boasting a genuine superstar striking talent in Victor Osimhen, supported by Bundesliga hotshot Victor Boniface and Atalanta’s speed demon Ademola Lookman among others, are Nigeria now being unfairly overlooked as one of the main contenders to win the 2023 AFCON?
Nigeria’s performance at the 2021 AFCON (held in Cameroon in 2022) was nothing short of disastrous. They actually passed the group stage test with flying colours, edging out Egypt 1-0 in the final game to progress with maximum points. But a Round of 16 battle of the Eagles with Tunisia - whose team was littered with unheralded players - saw them limp out of the tournament with only one shot on goal to their name. To add salt to the wounds, Tunisia were subsequently knocked out in the quarter-final by Burkina Faso.
Just under four months after that disappointment, Jose Peseiro was appointed as the new head coach of Nigeria, and it’s fair to say it’s been a mixed bag for the Portuguese so far. The former Porto and Braga boss oversaw a successful AFCON qualification campaign, winning five of his six games, but a group containing Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Sao Tome and Principe was never likely to pose many problems.
Of greater significance is how Nigeria have fared in World Cup qualifiers and friendlies. It’s been a slow start in the former, with the team held to 1-1 draws against Lesotho and Zimbabwe, while they have failed to win any of their friendlies against non-African opposition, losing five and drawing one. Peseiro’s win percentage of 43% is hardly inspiring stuff heading into the AFCON, and the performances of the team under his stewardship, added to its previous failings, probably go a fair way to explaining their status as seventh-favourites to win the tournament.
However, there are reasons for Nigerians to be optimistic. Based on talent alone, the Super Eagles can mix it with the best of them. They lack a goalkeeper of status compared to other big nations like Cameroon (Andre Onana) and Senegal (Edouard Mendy), but the defence looks considerably improved from two years ago. Ola Aina (Nottingham Forest) and Calvin Bassey (Fulham) are currently starring in the Premier League, with the latter arriving in the Ivory Coast off the back of locking up England star Bukayo Saka for the majority of a 2-1 win over Arsenal.
Bright Osayi-Samuel (Fenerbahce), William Troost-Ekong (PAOK) and Semi Ajayi (West Bromwich Albion) have also linked up with the squad after impressive half-season showings for clubs battling at the top end of the table.
Issues have arisen in midfield, though, with Leicester City general Wilfred Ndidi forced to pull out through injury. The 54-cap international has been replaced by the uncapped Alhassan Yusuf, who has made waves in Belgium with Antwerp and drawn comparisons with former Foxes and France star N’Golo Kante. Alex Iwobi (Fulham), Frank Onyeka (Brentford) and Joe Aribo (Southampton) are probably more likely starters in midfield, at least to begin with.
It’s the frontline that should really get pulses racing, though. Osimhen was the top goalscorer in Italy’s premier division last season as he fired Napoli to their first Serie A title since 1990. It’s been a stop-start beginning to the current campaign for the 25-year-old but he has still struck 11 times for club and country, including a hat-trick for Nigeria in their final AFCON qualifier against Sao Tome and Principe in September.
It remains to be seen whether Peseiro takes a more conservative approach for this tournament, but if he sticks with four attackers in his starting XI, Boniface, Lookman and Samuel Chukwueze (AC Milan) are all leading candidates to support Osimhen up top. Boniface in particular has caught the eye of many across Europe after a rip-roaring start to life in the Bundesliga. The Bayer Leverkusen striker has scored 10 and registered seven assists in 16 league games so far, adding a further six goals in cup competitions, including four in the Europa League. In Osimhen and Boniface, Nigeria arguably lay claim to the two most fearsome centre-forwards in the competition.
If the duo are paired in attack, then expect Lookman and Chukwueze to be the two players handed the responsibility of driving at defenders out wide and supplying the strikers. Lookman should be in a confident mood himself after registering 10 goal contributions in Serie A so far this season, on the back of his 19 in 2022-23. It’s not been so promising in Italy for Chukwueze, who has been disrupted by injuries since his summer move to AC Milan, but two goals in his last two Champions League games - including a winner at Newcastle United last month - should stand him in good stead heading to the Ivory Coast.
Peseiro can also call on the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City) - scorer of 13 national team goals - Moses Simon (Nantes) and Sadiq Umar (Real Sociedad) in attack. Egypt (Mohamed Salah), Senegal (Sadio Mane), Algeria (Riyad Mahrez) and Cameroon (Vincent Aboubakar) all have superstar talents in attack who have produced at international level for the best part of a decade, but it’s fair to say that none of those countries are competing in the forward depth charts with Nigeria.
The Super Eagles are stacked with goals and assists in their ranks - it’s now about implementing a support system that can act as a cohesive unit, keeping it tight at the back and ensuring service to the frontline. AFCON is famed for its lack of goals - the opening round of the last group stage saw just 12 goals in as many games - so having that extra bit of magic in attack can make all the difference.
Nigeria start their campaign in Abidjan this Sunday, against Equatorial Guinea at Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara, before playing the host nation four days later and finishing the group stage with a game against Guinea Bissau (Monday, January 22).
In theory, only the Ivory Coast should pose a real threat to Nigeria, and with the top two in each group - and the four best third-placed teams - advancing to the Round of 16, progression should be a formality for Nigeria.
Instead, it’s the knockout rounds where Peseiro and his side will be judged. The Super Eagles have a lot to prove given their results in the last two years and their previous performances at AFCON, but with Osimhen and co in attack, they’ve got every chance of rising above the odds and going all the way.
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