As the Super Eagles gear up for their AFCON 2023 opener against Equatorial Guinea, the odds that once heavily favoured Nigeria now seem to hang in the balance.
The Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan will be the battleground for this crucial encounter on Sunday, January 14, as three-time champions Nigeria face a nation making their fourth AFCON appearance.
Despite Nigeria’s illustrious history in the tournament, recent events have thrown challenges their way.
Injuries to key players and late withdrawals have disrupted their preparations, leveling the playing field against Equatorial Guinea.
The former champions, led by coach Jose Peseiro, are now tasked with navigating a tricky opening match to secure three crucial points.
Francis Uzoho has been Peseiro’s number-one goalkeeper since the Portuguese tactician was appointed Nigeria’s head coach, and that will not change at the AFCON.
Stanley Nwabili did not particularly cover himself in glory when he conceded twice in the friendly loss to Guinea last week.
Enyimba’s Olorunleke Ojo remains without a cap yet for the Super Eagles, and it is unlikely he will earn it in a match as crucial as this.
In the heart of the defence, Peseiro faces decisions on the central pairing.
The combination of Semi Ajayi and William Troost-Ekong, as well as Semi Ajayi and Calvin Bassey, has been tried. However, the Super Eagles have conceded 21 goals in 15 games under Peseiro’s watch.
Troost-Ekong brings experience with his third AFCON appearance, while Ajayi’s strength, height, and confidence suit the demands of African football.
Bassey, though, is still learning the ropes of being a central defender.
The Fulham defender remains Nigeria’s best left-back, but he has Bruno Onyemaechi and Zaidu Sanusi to contend with in that role.
On the right flank, the battle is between Osayi-Samuel and Ola Aina, with Awaziem providing a less adventurous option.
The absence of Ndidi poses a challenge for Nigeria’s midfield.
Brentford’s Frank Onyeka, an enforcer, may fill the void, while Raphael Onyedika and Alhassan Yusuf present different skill sets.
Peseiro might opt for a midfield pivot with two of these three for solidity.
In the creative hub, Iwobi takes the lead, and the former Everton man can be saddled with the extra responsibility of drifting to the wings when needed.
Nantes winger Moses Simon, Nigeria’s number-one standout player in the 2021 AFCON, is set to continue his impactful role on the left wing.
Nigeria’s attack, usually a force to be reckoned with, is in the midst of a terrible crisis.
With injuries ruling out Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Boniface, and Umar Sadiq, only Osimhen stands as the fit center-forward.
Lookman, versatile and effective at Atalanta, could play a support role.
Ahmed Musa and Samuel Chukwueze are poised to make an impact off the bench.
This is the first encounter between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea at the AFCON. At the same time, the Super Eagles hold a favourable record in other competitions, with two wins out of two.
Possible Nigeria XI: Uzoho; Osayi-Samuel, Ajayi, Troost-Ekong, Bassey; Onyeka, Alhassan, Iwobi, Simon; Lookman, Osimhen (4-4-2)
How do you think Nigeria should line up against Equatorial Guinea? Let us know your thoughts, predictions, and teams in the comments below!