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Afcon 2021: Nigeria’s next task is to remain competitive despite expected changes

17:53 EAT 18/01/2022
Nigeria - Super Eagles
The Super Eagles face Guinea-Bissau, keen on maximum points at the group stage for the first time since the 2006 competition

There is a reason performances are arguably a greater gauge of a team’s level, as opposed to results.

Just ask Nigeria’s supporters who have witnessed the nation’s impressive start to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

Two wins from two do not tell the entire story of a side that shackled Mohamed Salah in the 1-0 success over Egypt and brushed Sudan aside in Saturday’s 3-1 victory at the Roumde Adjia Stadium in Garoua.

Compare this with the last time the Super Eagles found themselves in this position at the finals and the contrast could not be more marked.

Gernot Rohr’s men went into their final Afcon 2019 clash with Madagascar on six points, after beating debutants Burundi and Guinea by single goals, but their overall level was questioned.

While nobody expected the shock 2-0 defeat by a Madagascar side competing at their first finals in 2019, it only exposed that side’s imperfections.

That loss saw the West Africans finish second in their group behind the debutants, an outcome that will not be repeating itself in Cameroon, with Nigeria guaranteed to end top of Group D.

In an event where Egypt beat Sudan and Augustine Eguavoen’s side are handed a surprising defeat by Guinea-Bissau, the 1-0 win over the Pharaohs becomes the definite tie-breaker.

Thus, Eguavoen is the only man at the helm to have taken the three-time African champions into the knockout rounds as group winners in their last six Afcon participations, repeating 2006’s achievement in Egypt.

It makes Wednesday’s game against Guinea-Bissau nothing more than a formality but ending on maximum points — something the Eagles have not managed since ’06 — becomes the new undertaking.

Hitherto, the interim boss has been near perfect. He made the side play without fear in their tournament opener against the seven-time champs and then showed his team could thrive as huge favourites in their second game against Sudan.

Changes are expected in the team’s final group encounter, although you wonder to what degree.

Kelechi Nwakali and Frank Onyeka have seen 35 minutes between them so far, with the Brentford man understandably not coming off the bench in both fixtures.

With top spot assured and the shortage of midfield options compared to other positions in the squad, there is a rationale to give Joe Aribo and Wilfred Ndidi deserved breathers.

Further forward, Alex Iwobi and Chidera Ejuke could replace Samuel Chukwueze and Moses Simon in the line-up.

The Super Eagles will be beneficiaries of the latter’s ability to link play, combine with teammates and carry the ball effectively while Ejuke provides cover for the so-far impressive Nantes man.

It remains to be seen if Umar Sadiq will come in for Taiwo Awoniyi, although you are inclined to give the Almeria frontman significant minutes despite the ongoing criticism over cameos against Egypt and Sudan.

Admittedly, making a glut of changes has its demerits, including a lack of rhythm for the incoming players owing to a dearth of game time, the risk of an incoherent display and preferred starters losing momentum.

Having said that, the need to preserve key players for the knockout rounds and avoid potential injuries serve a greater purpose for any Afcon ambition Nigeria nurse.

Nine points from nine for the first time since 2006 does have a nice ring to it, yet you wonder if Eguavoen is prepared to let go of that to give equally motivated players game in their legs against an opponent that seek their first-ever Afcon goal against the Super Eagles.

While Wednesday’s game does not change the West African giants’ fate, the Nigeria boss will hope the stand-ins flourish as the three-time winners look to end the group stage without blemish.