Inasmuch as notions of revenge may be branded ‘silly’ by the Nigeria camp before locking horns with South Africa at the FNB Stadium, this Africa Cup of Nations qualifier isn’t just any other game.
In truth, while securing qualification to the continental competition, for the first time since winning it in 2013, is what the West Africans will be after - they need a single win from two games to seal participation - getting one over a long-standing rival would serve as added incentive.
When you consider this particular rival got one over the Super Eagles on their own turf (it ended 2-0 in Uyo) in the reverse fixture over a year ago, then you begin to fully understand the quest to get even.
With the adversaries set to do battle once again, what could decide the outcome of the encounter in Johannesburg?
Nigeria’s goalkeeping conundrum and defensive instability
Francis Uzoho, Gernot Rohr’s established first-choice, will miss out through injury and it throws the goalkeeping slot wide open.
Frankly, the pair of Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi don’t inspire confidence, and to be fair neither does Uzoho, while the Elche man’s replacement, Theophilus Afelokhai remains untested at this level.
Afelokhai who, ironically, happens to be Enyimba’s number one, as opposed to Ezenwa, would feel he has a chance of making his debut against Bafana Bafana.
However, given Rohr isn’t one to make several tweaks, you sense the German tactician will make his pick from his capped options. Public opinion doesn’t seem to favour Akpeyi, owing to the spate of mistakes made by the Chippa United stopper in the past, and Ezenwa somewhat wins the battle given he’s the ‘lesser of two evils’.
For the backline, the continuing problem from set-pieces and crosses into the box persists. Given Stuart Baxter’s side created several chances from dead-ball situations in their home fixture against Seychelles, and even scored a couple from them, they’d definitely seek to exploit that weakness, which was visible in the 3-2 win against the North Africans, in the visitors’ rearguard.
The continued absence of Mikel John Obi may fill more column inches, but the unavailability of the suspended Wilfred Ndidi is arguably a bigger blow to the three-time African champions. No one in the Super Eagles side has the profile of the tenacious Leicester City man and he will be a huge miss.
Given the struggles of Oghenekaro Etebo in a deeper role in the double-header against Libya a month ago, and with Mikel Agu’s failure to impress in intermittent outings for the African giants, Ndidi’s absence in the middle of the park could hurt the West African giants.
Against the Mediterranean Knights, it was the tireless Ndidi who mopped up whenever Etebo was caught out. With Ogenyi Onazi still in exile from the side, no one in the side quite has the skillset of the Leicester man, or even comes close.
Looking at the brighter side, though, the popular John Ogu might finally get a start for the side. The Hapoel Be’er Sheva man is the best midfield controller in the team, but has always found chances few and far between.
With Ndidi’s absence, the tactician might be forced to play the Israeli-based player whose passing ability is unrivaled when compared with his midfield teammates. This might improve the Super Eagles’ ball retention - something they’ve struggled with when pressured by opponents - and you get the sense that the pros of playing the hitherto ignored Ogu far outweigh the cons.
On the other hand, Bafana also seem to be lightweight in central midfield with a few absentees. However, Hlompho Kekana’s presence will be key as Baxter looks to secure a big result at the FNB Stadium.
The Mamelodi Sundowns captain thrives in limiting the threat of the opposing team by breaking up attacks, and the veteran will be vital for the home side. He’s also a goal threat with his famed long-range efforts and this is a threat that the Eagles must guard against.
Where will the goals come from?
Admittedly, Ahmed Musa’s prowess in the attacking third is lethal, but you still wonder how the Eagles will fare in the absence of Odion Ighalo.
Of Nigeria’s 10 goals scored, in three competitive fixtures since the World Cup, the Changchun Yatai poacher has netted six; the aforementioned Musa has scored two, while the pair of Samuel Kalu and Chidozie Awaziem have one apiece.
When you realise the latter is a centre-back, questions will be asked of the proficiency of the other attackers.
Galatasaray’s Henry Onyekuru only just ended a two-month drought, while Isaac Success has only found the back of the net on two occasions this season for Watford in all competitions. Admittedly, the forward hasn’t been assured of a place for the Hornets, but the fact he’s never been a prolific hitman justifies doubts.
Other options, like Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho, have blown hot and cold all season, while Victor Osimhen or Samuel Chukwueze are unlikely to get the nod in attack for varying reasons.
Gernot Rohr’s in-game management
The German has been found wanting in relation to making the right calls during games at appropriate times and it’s cost the West Africans in the past. Even when the obvious decisions are staring him in the face, the wily old trainer’s reactive nature of sticking to his key players, even when they’re underperforming, could dent the visitors’ chances.
It’s been a source of frustration for several critics who feel the tactician needs a more proactive approach in his management of the side.
His dithering against Libya last time out was spared by Ighalo’s late winner, but given the in-form forward is unavailable, the German might need to be more adept if the Super Eagles are to successfully navigate a tricky fixture.