The two top teams in the U23 AFCON Group B, Nigeria and Mali, will slug it out on Sunday evening in the tourists’ resort of Mbour in Senegal in what many believe could determine the winners of this group.
Nigeria U23 team, Dream Team VI, will begin their campaign at the U23 AFCON on the artificial pitch of Caroline Faye Stadium by 5pm after they rounded up their training camp in The Gambia with a big 5-0 win over Gambia U20 team after both teams first drew 1-1 in another warm-up game.
Samson Siasia’s team will hope for a winning start against Mali, whose country has been on a high internationally this year after they finished third at the FIFA U20 World Cup and were beaten finalists in the FIFA U17 World Cup.
Historic Olympic gold medalist in 1996, Nigeria are featuring in the U23 AFCON for the second time after they failed to make it to the London 2012 Olympics, while Mali will be appearing at the competition for the first time.
The Malian Eagles are big and physical, meaning the Nigeria lads must use their athletic ability to come out victorious.
They have picked several bronze medalists from the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup – including keeper Djigui Diarra, defenders Aboubacar Doumbia and Souleymane Coulibaly, midfielders Diadié Samassékou and Souleymane Diarra and striker Souleymane Sissoko.
Their major absentee is COB winger Abdoulaye Diarra, who featured during the entire qualifying campaign before he was dropped by coach Cheick Oumar Kone.
Mali prepared for the tournament with warm-up friendlies against Senegal (0-0 in Toubab Dialaw on Sunday and 2-2 in Dakar on Tuesday).
The Eagles have failed to qualify for the Olympics since they debuted at the 2004 edition in Athens, where they fell to Italy in the quarterfinals.
Dream Team have been boosted by overseas-based strikers Junior Ajayi (CS Sfaxien, Tunisia), Taiwo Awoniyi (FSV Frankfurt, Germany) and hopefully that should rid them of their shyness in front of goal, which robbed them of gold at the All Africa Games in Congo Brazzaville in September.
Warri Wolves attacking midfielder Etebo Oghenekaro has been on great form leading up to this championship, scoring four goals including a hat-trick against Real Banjul.
If his knee could hold out in Senegal, Nigeria will have a great chance of going all the way in Senegal.
However, it is left to be seen how the team in Senegal will respond after 12 new players were included on the squad from the AAG.