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Eagles, Bafana Bafana in grudge clash

This afternoon at the Godswill Akpabio International stadium Uyo, former African champions, the Super Eagles will battle the Bafana Bafana of South Africa in their…

This afternoon at the Godswill Akpabio International stadium Uyo, former African champions, the Super Eagles will battle the Bafana Bafana of South Africa in their opening match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

The match is definitely a crucial one for the Super Eagles who want to avoid missing the prestigious tournament for the third time in a row. They had failed to defend their title in 2015 and also failed to qualify for this year’s edition staged in Gabon.

Interestingly, it was the South Africans who denied the Super Eagles the opportunity to defend their title in 2015. It will be recalled that just as in the present case, Nigeria was grouped along with South Africa in the 2015 qualifying draws.

South Africa beat the Super Eagles to the group ticket even as they were forced to a 2-2 in Nigeria after the first leg ended 0-0 in South Africa. It took the individual brilliance of Sone Aluko to save the Super Eagles from their second defeat in the hands of Bafana Bafana.

It was a sad moment for Nigerian fans as the Eagles failed to qualify for the 2015 AFCON but more misery was to come for them when again the team could not surmount the Egyptian hurdle to qualify for the 2017 edition in Gabon.

The Eagles picked only one point out of a possible six from the ‘Pharaohs of Egypt and that was not enough to fetch them the ticket to Gabon. After playing out a 1-1 draw in Nigeria at the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, the Eagles succumbed to a 0-1 defeat in Alexandria to break the hearts of millions of Nigerians.

It is worthy to note that just like the Eagles, the Bafana Bafana also failed to qualify for the 2017 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations as they lost the group ticket to eventual winners, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon.

Although they managed to hold Cameroon twice, mediocre performances against lowly rated Mauritania who defeated them and held them to a draw ensured they ended a distant third which was not enough to take them to Gabon.

Consequently, AFCON 2019 is of immense importance to the two giants of African football as they won’t want to be missing in action again when the best football playing nations in the continent converge on Cameroon in 2019.

Even as there are no more minnows in African football, the battle for the Group E ticket is surely a straight fight between South Africa and Nigeria. Without undermining their capacities, it will require a miracle for either Libya or Seychelles to beat the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana to the ticket.

In today’s tie, the odds favour the Super Eagles who have psychological edge over their opponents. Looking at their head to head record and present rating in world football, the Super Eagles are the better side.

Out of the 12 meetings between the two countries, Nigeria have won a record seven times, drawn four and lost only once which was in an international friendly match played on November 17, 2004.

The last match between Nigeria and South Africa played on 29th March, 2015 at the Mbombela stadium in South Africa ended 1-1. Ahmed Musa scored late into the match to give the Eagles the lead but Bongani Zungu equalized in added time to save the South Africans from their 8th defeat in the hands of the Eagles.

Both countries will be coming into the match with new men at the helms of their technical crew. While Nigeria hired Franco-German tactician Gernot Rohr after firing Sunday Oliseh in August 2016, the South Africans replaced Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba with Englishman Staurt Baxer who is having his second spell with the team.

Baxer surely knows one or two things about the Eagles for he was the one who led South Africa to their only victory over Nigeria in the 2004 international friendly match played at the Ellis Park stadium when Shaun Bartlett and Benedict Vilakazi scored the goals that earned their team the historic win.

Having retained the core of the South African team, Baxer has not hidden his intention to lead his wards to victory over the Eagles. At his inaugural briefing, he made it clear that under him, Nigeria won’t find it easy against South Africa.

However, his counterpart in Nigeria, Rohr is having a good run with his team. Since he was appointed, Nigeria is yet to suffer any defeat even as he is re-building the team.

He appears to have steadied the hitherto sinking ship as they presently top their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying group comprising of Algeria, reigning African champions Cameroon and former champions, Zambia.

Rohr led Eagles to important victories over Zambia and Algeria in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and they are beginning to dream Russia.

Recently, the Eagles played two international matches in France, one against ‘unknown Corsica’ and the other against neighbours Togo. While they forced Corsica to a 1-1 draw, they defeated the Hawks of Togo 3-0 in a convincing fashion.

The friendly matches no doubt provided opportunity for Rohr to test some new players like Arsenal target Henry Onyekuru, Tyroone Ebuehi, Kayode Olarewanju, Noah Serenren Bazee, Chidozie Awaziem, Victor Osimhen and home based players, Alhassan Ibrahim, Stephen Odey and Sikiru Olatunbosun.  

Rohr’s reign has seen emergence of the next generation of extremely talented young Nigerians who are plying their trade in Europe. Unlike most of his predecessors, he is willing to take risk and this explains why the Eagles are soaring again.

It will be recalled that in his first World Cup qualifying match against Zambia, the German was courageous to lead his attack with English Premier League youngsters, kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi.

The Manchester City and Arsenal forwards did not disappoint as each scored in that crucial 2-1 away victory.

At the moment, Rohr is gradually replacing the ‘tired’ legs with more enterprising young players and the attack is becoming more potent.

However, it is not yet uhuru for the tactician as he is said to be having challenges with his team’s defence line, especially the area of goalkeeping and the full back positions.

These are the areas that the Bafana Bafana may exploit in today’s match to get a positive result which could be their second victory over Nigeria or their fifth draw.

With the more reliable Carl Ikeme ruled out of the fixture due to injury, Rohr will depend on South Africa based Daniel Akpeyi who is the most experienced of the three goalkeepers in camp.

Unfortunately, big man between the sticks is yet to convince most Nigerians that he too can be relied upon However, having been around for some time, he may be preferred to former junior internationals, Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Dele Alampasu.

Although he may not have much headache with his central defenders, the same cannot be said of the full backs where Elderson Echejiele has failed to re-enact his AFCON 2013 performance just as Kenneth Omeruo has continually struggled to cope with his duties in the right full back position.

It will be recalled that when South Africa stopped Nigeria from qualifying for the 2015 AFCON, it was the defence that let the whole nation down.

Most Nigerian fans have not forgotten how Tokelo Rantie outpaced the entire Super Eagles defence to second South Africa’s second goal. He had scored the first in a spectacular fashion but the second was the icing on the cake for the Bafana Bafana.

Interestingly, the South African who put the Eagles to the sword in 2014 in still in the team to face Nigeria this afternoon. Thus, William Ekong, Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem must be on red alert, if they are to stop Rantie from causing another havoc.

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