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Can the Super Eagles soar again?

Nigeria qualified for the 2019 African Cup of Nations by topping their qualifying group ahead of South Africa; now the tournament is drawing closer and expectations are starting to rise. Whilst the betting doesn’t rank Nigeria as favourites, they are in the next tier down that would suggest neutrals think they’ve got a realistic shot at winning. The cup will be held with the newly formatted 24 team tournament, an increase of eight teams from the 16-team competition we’ve become accustomed to.

The Super Eagles, who have lifted the famous trophy three times – most recently in 2013 – kick off their campaign at the oldest stadium in Africa, the 20,000 capacity Alexandria, when they take on first-time qualifiers Burundi. Gernot Rohr will expect to emerge victorious from the opening game given their clear advantage in both ability and experience before they meet Guinea in the second fixture. The final team in group B is another AFCON first timer, Madagascar, and, once again, Rohr’s men will be strongly fancied.

Of course, the tournament newcomers will be looking to upset the odds when they face Nigeria but, realistically, if the Eagles have their wings clipped by either, then Rohr might be looking for another job. Stranger things have happened in soccer, however, avoid complacency and it will be a straight battle between Guinea and Nigeria as to who tops the group.

If you place trust in the FIFA world rankings then the smart money for your soccer bet would suggest the latter, given they’re ranked 20 odd places ahead of the Syli Nationale.

Some bittersweet news that could damage Guinea national team is the injury of their key midfielder and captain Naby Keita, who will miss the Champions League final and most likely won’t be called to AFCON either.

Providing both the opening games of group B go according to the form book, then it’s highly possible both Nigeria and Guinea would settle for a draw against one another, meaning goal difference could come into play. 

Should that be on the table come fixture three, we could see some great soccer as both sets of players will go all out to win big. That will likely suit the Super Eagles who are decently stocked in attacking positions.

It would be a calamitous failure if Nigeria don’t get out of the group – it might even go down in African Cup of Nations history – and when knockout rounds begin, the tournament can quickly open up. Given the experienced squad Rohr will have at his disposal, reaching the latter stages, may become a very real possibility.

Anything beyond the quarter finals could be enough to appease fans given the failure to qualify in 2015 and 2017. The coaching team and players will have much loftier ambitions though and quite rightly; the final squad hasn’t been named yet but there are some big names amongst the current 25 – it will become 23 ahead of the tournament.

Odion Ighalo, who currently plays his trade in China, but is best known for his stint in England at Watford, will be hoping to be one of the first names on the team sheet after top scoring during the qualifiers with seven goals. It’s highly probable that he’ll be joined in attack by Ahmed Musa who contributed seven goals and seven assists during the latest club campaign.

However, Henry Onyekuru also had a highly successful loan spell in Galatasaray, Turkey, even scoring the title winning goal for his team. Meanwhile, Paul Onuachu, who has just notched 22 goals for Midtjylland, could also come into the mix. That would likely see Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho, who had a very poor season, drop out of the squad.

At the back, the Eagles are almost guaranteed to go with a pairing of Udinese’s Williams Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun, despite the latter’s relative lack of game time during Brighton’s relegation battle in the English Premier League. What is less nailed on is what goalkeeper starts behind them.

In midfield, Iheanacho’s club teammate, Wilfred Ndidi, will be looking to feature heavily, after a stellar season for the Foxes. He might potentially play alongside another player who’s recently been playing in England – albeit in the second tier – as John Obi Mikel has been recalled to the squad. He last represented the Super Eagles when he skippered them in the World Cup.

Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi will be looking to create havoc from the wide positions. Meanwhile, youngster Samuel Chukwueze, who has been linked with several big European clubs following a positive breakthrough year with Villarreal, will be aiming to make an impact on the international stage.

That’s a team with a wealth of talent and plenty of know how. Write them off at your peril.

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