INSIDE AFCON 2019: Nigeria Target Second Win Against Naby Keita’s Syli Nationale

Nigeria have the opportunity to reach the Round of 16 of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt if the Super Eagles put the Syli Nationale of Guinea to the sword in their second match of the tournament on Wednesday.

Guinea’s unexpected 2-2 draw against debutants Madagascar on Day 1 means any team that harnesses six points in Group B would most certainly progress to the knockout rounds.

The availability of France-based forward Samuel Kalu, who can also play as wing back, has provided further options for Coach Gernot Rohr for Wednesday’s clash between the fierce West African rivals at the Alexandria Stadium.

Kalu elicited jubilation to the Nigeria camp on Monday evening after further tests in Cairo cleared him to play at the 2019 AFCON, following a scare after he fell during a training session and was stabilised before being taken to hospital on Friday. The incident ruled him out of Saturday’s clash with Burundi.

Kalu can fit into the right side of the attack, where he dazzled against Seychelles on Mahe Island in a qualifying match in September 2018 and against Libya home and away the following month, and can equally hold firm as wing back, as he did against South Africa in the penultimate qualifier in November 2018.

While AFCON 2019 is Nigeria’s 18th appearance, making Wednesday’s encounter their 88th match, Guinea is showing up here for the 13th time. Nigeria have won the title three times, finished in second place five times and picked up the bronze medals seven times. Guinea has only a runners-up place to show for their endeavour, back in 1976 when the tournament was held based on a league format.

Honours are even in 14 previous matches between both countries, with Nigeria winning four times, Guinea winning four times and six matches drawn. Some of the games have been nail-biting affairs, including a 1982 World Cup qualifying match in Lagos in April 1981 in which Henry Nwosu’s 88th minute winner separated both teams over two legs, and the 2012 AFCON qualifier that ended 2-2 in Abuja in October 2011 with Ibrahim Diallo’s last-minute equalizer stopping Nigeria from reaching the finals.

The Syli Nationale are bound to throw everything into Wednesday’s game, as defeat would gravely abbreviate their chances of progressing to the knockout rounds. And they have a coach who has a reason to want to put a knife through Nigeria’s ambition.

Paul Put was head coach of Burkina Faso’s Etalons who lost the final of the 2013 AFCON tournament to the Super Eagles at Soccercity in Johannesburg, three weeks after both teams ended their opening match of the finals 1-1 in Nelspruit.

It is probable that Coach Rohr will stick with Kaizer Chiefs’ Daniel Akpeyi in goal, with Kenneth Omeruo and Willian Ekong at the centre of defence and Ola Aina at left back. With Abdullahi Shehu injured, and Samuel Kalu now fit, the latter’s steel and attacking instincts could nip the right back shirt for him ahead of Chidozie Awaziem, while Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi, and Oghenekaro Etebo, may pull strings in midfield, if skipper Mikel Obi starts from the bench.

Samuel Chukwueze, Odion Ighalo, and Ahmed Musa may start at the fore, against a very strong Guinea team and on a day Nigeria need the goals and points to ease into the knockout rounds with a match to spare. 

Steadily, the Super Eagles have become a team reaching milestones with a match to spare, from qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, to earning the ticket to AFCON 2019.

The all-important fixture will kick-off by 3.30pm Nigerian time.