Nigeria will begin the quest for her fourth Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title today when the Super Eagles take on the Swallows of Burundi, in the opening match of Group B, at the 32nd edition of the continental soccer fiesta, which got underway yesterday, in Egypt.
On paper, the encounter billed to kick off at 6p.m, inside the Alexandria Stadium, has the trappings of a David veesus Goliath fight. Burundi is making her debut at the tournament and the Swallows have the unenviable fortune of facing the Super Eagles, who are making their 19th appearance and have lifted the coveted trophy three times – 1980, 1994 and 2013.
While Nigeria is currently 45th in FIFA World ranking, Burundi is ranked a distant 134th. The Swallows are, therefore, clearly the underdogs in today’s clash. But the Super Eagles’ gaffer, Gernot Rhor, is not persuaded by Nigeria’s intimidating pedigree over Burundi and the other Group B opponents, Guinea and Madagascar, bearing in mind that each of them is capable of springing surprises.
“The Burundi match will be our toughest in the group stage. Once we get it right, we can go on from there,” Rohr said ahead of today’s clash.
The Super Eagles missed out in the last two editions of the continental showpiece Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, and Rohr is aware of the expectation of Nigerians from his team in Egypt. With a 23-man squad comprising 11 players under the age of 24, the Super Eagles’ manager has admitted that the tournament will not be a tea party, but, nonetheless, assured of a good outing by his charges.
The German-French tactician counts on the experienced trio of team captain, John Mikel Obi, vice captain, Ahmed Musa and defender Kenneth Omeruo, who were in the Super Eagles squad that won the AFCON in 2013, in South Africa. He also relishes the current forms of some of his youthful strikers, including Villarreal of Spain winger, Samuel Chukwueze, Arsenal of England Alex Iwobi, Henry Onyekuru of Galatasaray of Turkey and Samuel Kanu who plays for Girondin Bordeaux of France.
“Nigerians can expect a team with wonderful players. This team is young, but we also have very experienced players; I think it is a cocktail of youthfulness and experience.
“Nigerians can expect a team with a fighting spirit too, because it is in the people’s character to always fight hard and give their best in everything they do,” Rohr said while responding to the question on Nigeria’s chance in Egypt.
We also have in our group two teams (Burundi and Madagaacar) who are newcomers, making it to the AFCON for the first time, and people think it is not a tough group. But I know it will not be easy to play against such countries. Those teams who are minnows usually have enthusiasm. And Guinea are also a very good side.
“We have to come out of this group first before even talking about going ahead to win the trophy. We will still have to go past the Round of 16 and then, we will play the quarter-final after which comes the semi-final before the final. You can see that we have a lot of games to play, but we are ready,” he added.
The Super Eagles will approach tonight’s game against Burundi with a 3-5-2 formation, in line with Rohr’s decision to play attacking football at the tournament .
One player who is expected to trouble the Burundi defence tonight is Villarreal of Spain wing whizkid, Samuel Chukwueze. Popular for his blistering pace on and off the ball, Chukwueze is rated as one of the best wingers in Europe at the moment.
The left-footed winger is expected to replicate his superlative form for the Yellow Submarines in the recently concluded season when he puts on the green and white colour for Nigeria in Egypt.
Others expected to take the fight to the Burundians are Ahmed Musa, Odion Ighalo, Onyekuru, Iwobi and Kanu.
Leicester City of England workaholic, Wilfred Ndidi, is expected to dictate the pace of the game from the midfield, with support from Oghenekaro Etebo of Stoke City, while team captain, Mikel, brings his wealth of experience in ball distribution to bear in providing the killer passes for the strikers to do the damage upfront.
Apart from Berahino Saido, a centre forward, who plies his trade for England Championship side, Stoke City, other Burundi players play in the domestic league and other neighboring African countries.
The Nigerian defence must, however, watch out for JS Kabylie of Algeria striker, Fiston Abdou Razak, who spearheads the attack for the Burundi team. Razak scored seven goals in 21 games for his club. He scored four goals in one away match against South Sudan in the qualifying campaign for the nations cup in Egypt. The 28-year old forward also has a record of 18 goals in 39 FIFA organised matches.
Regardless, the Super Eagles are expected not only to grab the full points on offer in tonight’s encounter, but also win the Swallows of Burundi with a wide goal margin. But Rohr must warn his charges against any form of complacency against the ambitious debutants.
In the second match of Group B, the Syli Nationale (National Elephants) of Guinea will attempt to feast on the Barea of Madagascar, who are also making their debut at the continental football showpiece.
The match will also take place inside the main bowl of the Alexandria Stadium in the city of Alexandria as from 9p.m tonight.
GROUP STAGE FIXTURES
DAY 2: 22/06/19
2:30pm – Congo DR vs Uganda
5:00pm – Nigeria vs Burundi
8:00pm – Guinea vs Madagascar
DAY 3: 23/06/19
2:30pm – Morocco vs Namibia
5:00pm – Senegal vs Tanzania
8:00pm – Algeria vs Kenya
DAY 4: 24/06/19
2:30pm – Côte d’Ivoire vs South Africa
5:00pm – Tunisia vs Angola
8:00pm – Mali vs Mauritania
DAY 5: 25/06/19
5:00pm – Cameroon vs Guinea-Bissau
8:00pm – Ghana vs Benin
DAY 6: 26/06/19
2:30pm – Nigeria vs Guinea
5:00pm – Uganda vs Zimbabwe
8:00pm – Egypt vs Congo DR
DAY 7: 27/06/19
2:30pm – Madagascar vs Burundi
5:00pm – Senegal vs Algeria
8:00pm – Kenya vs Tanzania
DAY 8: 28/06/19
2:30pm – Tunisia vs Mali
5:00pm – Morocco vs Côte d’Ivoire
8:00pm – South Africa vs Namibia
DAY 9: 29/06/19
2:30pm – Mauritania vs Angola
5:00pm – Cameroon vs Ghana
8:00pm – Benin vs Guinea-Bissau
DAY 10: 30/06/19
4:00pm – Burundi vs Guinea
4:00pm – Madagascar vs Nigeria
7:00pm – Zimbabwe vs Congo DRC
7:00pm – Uganda vs Egypt
DAY 11: 01/07/19
4:00pm – Namibia vs Côte d’Ivoire
4:00pm – South Africa vs Morocco
7:00pm – Tanzania vs Algeria
7:00pm – Kenya vs Senegal
DAY 12: 02/07/19
4:00pm – Guinea-Bissau vs Ghana
4:00pm – Benin vs Cameroon
7:00pm – Angola vs Mali
7:00pm – Mauritania vs Tunisia