The 32nd Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) which features twenty-four (24) teams for the first time ever kicks off in less than three weeks in Egypt and Nigeria’s Super Eagles will be making a return to the continent’s footballing showpiece after missing out on the last two editions in Equatorial Guinea in 2015 and Gabon in 2017.
Qualifying was relatively straightforward for the three-time AFCON champions this time around although they had to recover from a shock home loss to South Africa in their opening qualifying match to secure their place in Egypt with a game to spare from a group that also had Libya and Seychelles.
But with the easy part done, tougher tests now lie ahead. Many though, are of the opinion that the Super Eagles couldn’t have asked for a more favourable draw at the finals – having been placed in Group B alongside Guinea and two AFCON debutants in Madagascar and Burundi – but failure to qualify for the past two AFCONs suggest that nothing can be taken for granted. Indeed, only two players involved in the qualifying campaign had ever played at an AFCON – Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo who were part of the late Stephen Keshi’s victorious squad to the 2013 edition in South Africa.
Super Eagles head coach Gernot Rohr has therefore done a good job securing qualification with relative ease but now comes a most delicate task: cobbling together a team with just the right mix of experience, flair and ruthless efficiency capable of going as far as possible in the tournament which, for many Nigerians, would be a final place at least.
To this end, the Franco-German has announced a provisional list of twenty-five (25) familiar players made up of three (3) goalkeepers, eight (8) defenders, four (4) midfielders and ten (10) forwards with a further five placed on standby, from which he will select his final 23 after the friendly against Zimbabwe on 8 June in Asaba.
Rohr doesn’t really do surprises and most Nigerians can, with a very high degree of accuracy point to players likely to make the squad – a not too difficult task with just two players to be dropped from the midfield light and top-heavy provisional list.
The final 23-man squad should therefore not throw up many surprises, but nevertheless, we try our hand at the not so difficult task of determining the players likely to make the cut and which ones will be watching the tournament from the comforts of their sitting rooms.
Name: Francis Uzoho Age: 20 years Club: Anorthosis Famagusta (Cyprus) Caps: 13
The giant goalkeeper on loan to the Cyprus club from Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna has been Rohr’s undisputed first choice since making his debut as a second-half sub against Argentina in 2017. Featured four times in the qualifiers but hasn’t really convinced as first choice and his clanger in the 3-1 win over Seychelles in Asaba didn’t exactly help endear him to Nigerians who have increasingly called for him to be dropped. Played just three games for his Cypriot club since joining on loan which should be sufficient reason to relegate him to the bench but this is a man that started all of the Super Eagles’ games at the World Cup despite only appearing twice at club level. Expect Rohr then, to stick him between the sticks when the Eagles kick off against Burundi on the 22nd of June.
Name: Ikechukwu Ezenwa Age: 30 years Club: Katsina United Caps: 7
Many people’s choice to displace Uzoho as number one, the Katsina United first choice goalie enjoyed a run in the team as a starter during the World Cup qualifiers but eventually lost his place and has struggled to fully gain Rohr’s trust. Featured in the 1-1 draw against South Africa in Johannesburg during the qualifiers and produced a save of outstanding quality against Egypt in the Eagles’ last friendly to remind Rohr of his qualities. Will definitely be in Egypt.
Name: Daniel Akpeyi Age: 32 years Club: Kaizer Chiefs Caps: 8
The joint oldest member of the team, superb at club level where he made a combined 24 league appearances for old club Chippa United and new team Kaizer Chiefs. Should be number one if only he could replicate his club form for the national team. Replaced by Uzoho after a shaky runout in that friendly against Argentina in 2017 and put in an unsteady performance in the calamitous 2-0 defeat to South Africa in Uyo in the Eagles’ first game of the AFCON qualifiers. Hasn’t featured in a competitive game since but will be on the plane to Egypt.
Name: Olaoluwa Aina Age: 22 Club: Torino (On Loan From Chelsea) Caps: 10
Left-back by trade but can also play at right back, wing back and defensive midfield. Scored once and created four goals in 31 appearances for his Italian club in the Serie A. Featured twice in the qualifiers and faces a battle with Jamilu Collins for a starting spot in Egypt. His versatility should serve the team well.
Name: Shehu Abdullahi Age: 26 Club: Bursaspor FC Caps: 25
A converted midfielder who has made the right-back spot his own, suffered an injury which kept him out for three months. Played thirteen times in the league on his return but couldn’t prevent his Turkish team from suffering relegation to the second tier. Involved in three matches during the qualifiers and will be first choice at the AFCON if fit.
Name: Chidozie Awaziem Age: 22 Club: Caykur Rizespor (On Loan From Porto) Caps: 5
The center-back who can also play at right-back hasn’t found playing time easy to come by at his parent club and his move to Turkey afforded him much needed playing time as he featured 17 times in all competitions. Very much second choice for the Super Eagles, he featured twice and scored once in the qualifiers and should provide cover for the regulars in Egypt.
Name: William Troost-Ekong Age: 25 Club: Udinese Caps: 30
Nigeria’s best defender and one half of Rohr’s preferred defensive pairing a.k.a the oyinbo wall, the center-back was phenomenal for the Italian side he joined last summer from Turkish side Bursaspor, starting 35 times in the league as they staved off relegation. Featured in five of the six qualifying matches only missing the 3-0 victory at Seychelles due to injury. First name on Rohr’s list.
Name: Leon Balogun Age: 30 years Club: Brighton & Hove Albion Caps: 25
The other half of Rohr’s oyinbo wall, tall, lanky and comfortable in possession. Moved to England on a free transfer from German side Mainz, but found it difficult to dislodge the center-back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. Played a paltry 8 times in the league, so his fitness might be a concern but the friendlies against Zimbabwe and Senegal should bring him to speed. Turns 31 during the tournament and will definitely be celebrating entering his fourth decade in Egypt.
Name: Kenneth Omeruo Age: 25 years Club: Leganes (On Loan From Chelsea) Caps: 40
One of only three players with prior AFCON experience, the 25-year old who must be on his one-millionth loan away from his parent club, enjoyed a sterling time in Spain playing 28 times in the league. Many watchers believe he should displace Balogun as Troost-Ekong’s primary defensive partner, however, similarities between the playing styles of both players means this partnership has failed to flourish when tried. Should come in handy if Rohr decides on a back three in Egypt.
Name: Jamilu Collins Age: 24 years Club: SC Paderborn 07 Caps: 6
Mainstay at left back since making his breakthrough in the 4-0 defeat of Libya, the 24-year old featured 34 times as his side secured qualification to the Bundesliga from the second tier. Played in four qualifying games, has looked jittery at times and his positioning has been suspect but Rohr likes him. Faces a tough battle with Aina for a starting spot.
Name: Semi Ajayi Age: 25 years Club: Rotherham United Caps: 6
A center-back by trade but can play anywhere across the backline and in midfield. Scored 7 times and provided one assist mostly from central midfield in 46 appearances for his club. Very much bench material for the Super Eagles as shown by his total of 36 minutes in four matches during the qualifying campaign.
Name: John Mikel Obi Age: 32 years Club: Unattached Caps: 78
Recalled to the squad after a “productive meeting” with Rohr having not featured for the national team since the 3-2 defeat to Argentina at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Without a club following the expiration of his loan deal with English Championship side Middlesbrough where he made 18 appearances. Nigeria’s most experienced player wasn’t missed during his hiatus but his experience, leadership and calming influence in midfield should prove invaluable for a team only playing its second tournament as a unit. Would be interesting to see if Rohr restores him to the captaincy and the starting eleven at the Nations Cup.
Name: Wilfred Ndidi Age: 22 years Club: Leicester City Caps: 25
Only player in the squad with a claim to being world class and one of the best in the world in the defensive midfield role. Topped most defensive midfield metrics in the English Premier League where he played in all 38 games and scored twice for the Foxes. Featured in five games during the qualifiers and will be one of the first names on the team sheet in Egypt.
Name: Oghenekaro Etebo Age: 23 years Club: Stoke City Caps: 21
Took time to adapt to the second tier of English football but eventually found his footing to become an integral part of the side finishing with 34 appearances in the league and earning a nomination for Player of the Season. Played in all six qualifiers starting five times, would be interesting to see how Mikel’s return affects his status as a starter.
Name: John Ogu Age: 31 Club: Unattached Caps: 21
The much-loved midfielder has been accustomed to life on the bench much to the chagrin of fans of the national team who would love to see him afforded more starting opportunities. Currently without a club after he declined to renew his contract with Israeli club Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the defensive midfielder who can also play in defence as part of a back three, featured twice in the qualifiers, including a rare ninety minutes away at South Africa. Featured 20 times for his club side and should reprise his role on the bench in Egypt.
Name: Ahmed Musa Age: 26 Club: Al Nassr Caps: 71
Took a while to gain Rohr’s trust but the second most capped player whose 14 goals are the most of any player in the squad has become one of the pillars of the national team. Carried his scintillating World Cup form to his Saudi club side whom he joined in the summer from Leicester City and led them to the league title, scoring seven (7) goals and providing seven (7) assists in twenty-four (24) league appearances. Scored two (2) goals in six qualifying games and will be absolutely crucial if the Super Eagles are to go all the way in Egypt.
Name: Odion Ighalo Age: 29 years Club: Shanghai Shenhua Caps: 25
Vilified for that miss at the World Cup and without a goal for the national team prior to the qualifiers, the striker who turns 30 just before the start of the AFCON has enjoyed a massive upturn in fortunes in what has to be one of the most poignant redemptive stories in Nigerian football. His seven (7) goals in qualifying were the most of any player on the continent and where once Nigerians would rather have a piece of furniture leading the attack, it is virtually unthinkable to imagine the forward line in Egypt without the attacker who has scored seven (7) times in nine league games for his Chinese club.
Name: Henry Onyekuru Age: 21 years Club: Galatasaray SK (On Loan From Everton) Caps: 9
Another one who has gradually won Rohr over, the forward who can operate in any position across the frontline was very much on the fringes of the national team but appears to have done enough to guarantee a place in Egypt. Scored fourteen (14) times in the league including the goal that clinched the Turkish topflight title for his team. Scored once in five qualifying games.
Name: Alexander Iwobi Age: 23 years Club: Arsenal Caps: 28
The attacking midfielder has endured a mixed season for his English side for whom he scored three (3) goals and provided seven (7) assists in thirty-five (35) league appearances. Will be relied on to provide much needed creativity and chip in with a few goals for the Super Eagles in Egypt although he has failed to add to his five goals for the national side having not scored since he netted against England in a pre-World Cup friendly in June 2018. Made one assist in five qualifying games and would need to bring his “A” game to the tournament.
Name: Paul Onuachu Age: 24 years Club: FC Midtjylland Caps: 2
Rohr can rest well now that he has found the perfect target man in the 6’7 striker. The gangling attacker only made his debut in the final qualifier against Seychelles in Asaba but properly introduced himself to home fans with that howitzer of a shot against Egypt to record Nigeria’s fastest ever goal. Offers something different from other forwards with his imposing frame, aerial threat and ability to hold up the ball. Should prove a potent weapon off the bench in Egypt.
Name: Samuel Kalu Age: 21 years Club: Girondins Bordeaux Caps: 5
Another one of Rohr’s younglings who appears to have forced himself into reckoning having only made his debut during the qualifiers. Made an assist on his first start against Seychelles away, scored at home against Libya and provided yet another assist in the 1-1 draw against South Africa in Johannesburg to play his way into the plane to Egypt. The winger scored four times and provided an equal number of assists in thirty-one (31) appearances in all competitions for his French side.
Name: Samuel Chukwueze Age: 20 Club: Villareal Caps: 1
Not since Emmanuel Amuneke has a left foot elicited so much excitement in Nigerians. The hugely talented wing wizard who is at his devastating best when he plays as an inverted winger on the right, possess trickery and pace in spades as players at Real Madrid and Barcelona can attest to. Left a trail of destruction in twenty-six (26) matches in La Liga where he scored five (5) times and created two (2) more. Only a public outcry stopped him from playing at the ongoing U20 World Cup in Poland which tells the story of the high esteem in which he is held by Nigerians. Expect a riot if he fails to make the team to the AFCON where the only worry would be that he doesn’t crash under the weight of expectation.
Name: Kelechi Iheanacho Age: 22 years Club: Leicester City Caps: 24
Perhaps it is the water in Leicester, but there appears to be something at that club that prevents Nigerian forwards from thriving as Ahmed Musa also found out in his ill-fated stay with the Foxes. Once the golden boy and bright new hope of Nigerian football, Iheanacho has seen his stock for club and country plummet to the extent that he stands a very real chance of missing out on the AFCON. His diminished importance to the national team was laid bare in stark terms when he overlooked for the games against Seychelles and Egypt just after being roundly criticized by Rohr for not working hard enough for club and country. Scored seven (7) times in his first eleven (11) caps but the player who won the MVP award and the Silver Boot at the 2013 U17 World Cup in the UAE has scored just once in thirteen (13) subsequent appearances and none at all since November 2017. Hasn’t scored for his club since September. Caused a stir when he was included in the provisional squad, few tears will be shed at his omission.
Name: Moses Daddy Simon Age: 23 years Club: Levante Caps: 20
The pacy winger was unfortunate to be omitted from the team to the 2018 World Cup and could yet face another heartbreak when Rohr releases his final 23-man list. Started in the 2-0 home loss against South Africa in the Eagles’ first qualifier and came on to score against Seychelles in their last. Completed the entire friendly against Egypt which could be interpreted to mean he features prominently in Rohr’s thoughts. Scored once and provided one assist in nineteen (19) league appearances for his Spanish club.
Name: Victor Osimhen Age: 20 Club: RSC Charleroi Caps: 3
One of three out-and-out center-forwards in the squad, the powerful striker enjoyed a fantastic season in Belgium scoring twenty (20) times in thirty-six (36) appearances in all competition. Offers pace, power and clinical efficiency in the box but the fact that his participation in the qualifiers was limited to just five (5) minutes in the 2-0 loss to South Africa offers the clearest indication of where he stands with Rohr. Yet to score in three appearances for the national team, offers nothing significantly different from other forwards in the squad. Could be a victim of the surfeit of forwards in the team, very much one for the future.
This category features every single player on the standby list and really should be called the “only by the special Grace of God” category because that is what it would take to see any of them in Egypt.
Enyimba goalkeeper Theophilus Afelokhai stands the best chance of making it as he would definitely be called up to fill the void in the event of an injury to any one of the three goalies in the squad.
Lokomotiv Moscow defender Bryan Idowu played the full ninety minutes in the qualifier away at Seychelles and was on the bench on the travels to Libya and South Africa but the 27-year old who has ten (10) caps for Nigeria hasn’t been called up since the friendly against Uganda last November and won’t be in Egypt.
Vitoria Setubal Midfielder Mikel Agu was on the bench in both qualifiers against South Africa and played in the friendly against Uganda in November. Hasn’t added to his seven (7) caps since and the 25-year old certainly won’t be adding to them in Egypt.
Twenty-three (23) year old Junior Ajayi earned his solitary cap as a substitute in a friendly against Serbia in March of 2018 where he featured for just two (2) minutes. The Al Ahly of Egypt forward who has scored four (4) goals in fourteen (14) league appearances would probably earn a second cap but definitely not at the Nations Cup.
Nineteen (19) year old Enyimba defenders Ikouwem Udoh Utin and Valentine Ozornwafor are currently at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Poland where they are having enough trouble trying to contain fellow youngsters at the tournament. With moves to big European clubs in the offing expect to see a lot more from them in the future just not at the AFCON in Egypt.