The Super Eagles of Nigeria are in Cameroon where they will fight for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) title despite rocky preparations.
Aside the sacking of Gernot Rohr, withdrawal of key players days to the tournament means there is the need to dissect this hurriedly patched-up team with 13 tournament debutants for players that could be pivotal on the pitch and possibly lead Eagles to continental glory for the first time in nine years.
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The Villarreal winger comes into AFCON on form, having contributed 5 goals and 7 assists despite injury layoffs earlier in the season. The 22-year-old Diamond Academy graduate has quick feet and dribbling skills that could defeat opponents if well harnessed. The 2021 Europa league winner missed only one match in Eagles’ third-place finish at Egypt 2019, and his ability to tear down defences from the flank, set up scoring opportunities for his teammates and penchant for brilliant solo goals could lead Eguavoen’s team to unlikely glory in Cameroon.
Absence of Victor Osimhen , Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo means Awoniyi’s time has finally come. The bulky striker is labeled the new Rashidi Yekini and he is expected to take the opportunity with both hands to further his rising profile. The 6ft-tall striker has scored nine goals and one assist in 17 BundesLiga matches with Union Berlin where his performances have been hailed by pundits and UEFA, and is on the radar of several European clubs. While he only made his debut for the Super Eagles in October last year, the Ilorin-born striker has excelled at age-group competitions for Nigeria. He won the Under-17 World Cup in 2013 where he scored four goals, won the African Under-20 Championship in 2015 and could be set to take the senior competition by storm.
The question is where will this Leicester City forward fit in Coach Austin Eguavoen’s system? Iheanacho, who will play in his first AFCON tournament, is an atypical forward who can drop deep as an extra midfielder to set up chances or take one himself. He would be a perfect foil for a Awoniyi upfront- coincidentally both players were integral to the Golden Eaglets’ Under-17 World Cup win in 2013. The 25-year-old’s recently improved club performances suggest Seniorman Kelz should prove an important part of the Eagles in Cameroon.
Zaidu Sanusi’s left full back has made the position his own at FC Porto in Portugal, and his performances in recent months suggest he should continue his form at AFCON. The 24-year-old played all six of Porto’s UEFA champions league group stage matches and has scored once in ten league appearances. Since a loss on his international debut in October 2020, the sturdy defender equipped with a burst of pace when needed has not lost while playing for Nigeria. Sanusi’s ability at both ends of the pitch and good luck charm could prove useful for the Eagles in Cameroon.
It remains to be seen the role captain Ahmed Musa will play in Cameroon, but his vice-captain William Troost-Ekong is expected to marshal the defence alongside his long-term partners Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem. Wilfred Ndidi should be his usual industrious self in defensive midfield, helping out up in defence, stopping opposition players and starting attacking moves.