Can Nigeria exert revenge on South Africa for an AFCON 2019 ticket?
Stadium image: Celso Flores, CC-BY-SA-2.0
More than 25,000 Super Eagles fans crammed the Bird’s Nest stadium in Uyo on June 10, 2017. The occasion was Nigeria’s AFCON 2019 curtain-raiser against South Africa. Prior to the game, the South Africans had never beaten Nigeria in a competitive fixture. Not many anticipated what happened next. South Africa headed home with all three points and a clean sheet.
The Super Eagles were tardy, lacklustre and profligate in that encounter. They turned the corner quickly, though, becoming the first African team to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. When the tournament in Russia wrapped up, their focus returned to the AFCON. Gernot Rohr's side embarked on a three-match winning streak in Group E.
The Eagles have nine points, one ahead of their Saturday opponents, with two games left in the series. Once again, they must face Bafana Bafana.
What does victory mean for both teams?
A victory would lift South Africa to 11 points. It’ll also see them leapfrog Nigeria on points and goal difference. Irrespective of what happens on matchday six, South Africa would’ve done enough to reach the tournament in Cameroon. Lose or draw, and the door is open for Libya to gain ground if they can win away to bottom side Seychelles.
The Nigerians must be well aware of the permutations at play. Victory guarantees the group and automatic qualification. Like South Africa, anything else leaves doubt.
Nigeria will miss Wilfred Ndidi, Mikel John Obi and Ogenyi Onazi. AFCON qualifying's top scorer, Odion Ighalo, is also a scratch. Still, the team is fleshed out in other departments. Eight defenders and nine strikers were invited. Mikel Agu, Oghenekaro Etebo and John Ogu are the three midfielders to ensure the absentees aren’t sorely missed.
Rave-of-the-moment Villarreal forward Samuel Chukwueze could earn his senior team debut but Nigeria’s attack poses so much competition for places. Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho, Watford’s Isaac Success, Ahmed Musa, Samuel Kalu, Moses Simon, Victor Osimhen and Henry Onyekuru are all vying for slots.
South Africa is also missing some key players in midfield. Brentford defensive midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo, Dean Furman, and Sibusiso Vilakazi are unable to compete due to injury. Unlike their opponents, the 2010 World Cup host has named a 23-man squad. It consists of eight defenders and midfielders with four strikers and three keepers.
On paper, Nigeria is the bigger and better team despite losing the reverse fixture. But Bafana Bafana is at home, intent on proving their away victory was no fluke. Stuart Baxter will lineup his team in their usual 4-2-3-1 with Percy Tua leading the attack. South Africa is expected to come out with guns blazing, hoping to catch the Nigerians on the break. That could backfire.
Nigeria can rely on wing play given they have limited options from midfield. Arsenal star Alex Iwobi will shoulder the bulk of the creative responsibility. Gernot Rohr favours a 4-3-3, most likely with Samuel Kalu, Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho in a three-pronged attack. South Africa is yet to concede in the group. There’s a lot of work for the Nigerian attackers.
The Super Eagles like to keep the ball on the ground and create from steady build-up play. That system might not yield fruits against a South African side who never tire chasing the ball. Some nicely weighted crosses from Kalu or Musa could be the difference.
South Africa will put up a staunch fight today. They’re likely to get a goal against the run of play. But they’ll find it difficult to keep a clean sheet or pick a point. Nigeria comes to the party with a lot of young, hungry, European-based strikers. These guys want to score and impress the boss.
Full-time score: South Africa 1:3 Nigeria.