Afcon 2021: Why Eguavoen must make bold Super Eagles choices

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To understand why the average Nigerian is not looking forward to the Africa Cup of Nations, there is a need to consider what has happened hitherto.

Barely a month to the showpiece, the Super Eagles jettisoned Gernot Rohr after five years at the helm, and they lost their star player in Victor Osimhen to coronavirus.

Throw in the raft of withdrawals, either because of injuries or technicalities, and the three-time African champions begin this year’s finals as outsiders for the title.

In truth, a nation that might have entered as one of the contenders for a fourth African crown are getting little mention by observers.

Frankly, the upshot of Nigeria’s thorny pre-tournament preparation means nobody knows what to expect.

Gernot Rohr - Nigeria
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Had Rohr stayed on, supporters would have anticipated a defeat in Tuesday’s opening game against Egypt followed by victories over Sudan — without an Afcon clean sheet since 1970 — and Guinea-Bissau, who have finished bottom of their group at two Afcons since their 2017 debut appearance.

Those pre-Afcon projections with the Franco-German will have had the West Africans ending second in Group D behind Egypt.

Is the aforementioned eventuality one Augustine Eguavoen will want?

Of course, this sport can intermittently leave observers with egg on their faces owing to predictions that go awry. However, it has not stopped fans and pundits from sharing their thoughts from time to time.

If any onlooker takes a cursory look at all the Afcon teams pooled, the respective group winners from A to F will likely be Cameroon, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia.

For Nigeria, this could spell doom…and here is why.

Super Eagles, Nigeria
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Admittedly, we can choose to be boring and take it one game at a time, but what is the point in following that old, cliched path?

If the group stage concludes on January 20 with the aforementioned nations topping their sections, it could have ramifications for the Super Eagles...and not the good kind.

Ending behind the Pharaohs puts the West African nation on a collision course with defending champions Algeria, predicted winners of Group E, in a rematch of the 2019 semi-final. On paper, this potential round of 16 draw will have one winner—the Fennecs.

Alternatively, if Eguavoen’s men have a torrid time in their opening three games and just about manage to squeak through to the last 16 as one of the best four third-placed sides, they could face off with the top side in Group B.

This is likely to be Senegal, another pre-tournament favourite for Afcon. Admittedly, you never know how the Lions of Teranga will fare at the finals, especially as coronavirus continues to disrupt their quest for a maiden crown with Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly becoming the latest players to return positive tests before their opening game with Zimbabwe on Monday.

Sadio Mane, Algeria, January 2022
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Having said that, Aliou Cisse’s team still ought to have enough to safely navigate their section without major incident.

The potential clashes with two of the tournament’s favourites in the first knockout round means finishing above Tuesday’s opponents Egypt is non-negotiable.

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Pipping the seven-time winners to that spot pits them against one of the third-placed teams from Group B (Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi), Group E (Algeria, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast) or Group F (Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia).

Thus, it is imperative Eguavoen’s troops are assertive from the get-go on Tuesday despite their far from ideal, hiccup-laden preparation.

Early elimination will not be surprising owing to pre-Afcon events, but it is somewhat avoidable if the Eagles start strongly at the finals.