U23 AFCON: Can Disjointed Eagles Hit Top Gear And Pick Olympic Ticket?

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Expectations regarding Nigeria being title-favourites at the upcoming 2019 Africa U23 Cup of Nations in Egypt have somewhat been downplayed and of course, it’s for obvious reasons.

The defending champions head to the two-week tournament in North Africa with two objectives clearly at the top of their agenda: first, secure an Olympic ticket to the 2020 games in Tokyo, Japan and second, defend their title.

However, due to the unavailability of several foreign-based standout performers within the age category (unfavourable timing of the tournament a major factor with it not being in the FIFA window), this led to a hurriedly assembled 21-man team that includes three members of the 2015 all-conquering squad (Azubuike Okechukwu, Taiwo Awoniyi and Ndifreke Effiong). 

Add the above to a rather forgettable preparation and their poor road record, the Olympic Eagles will be deserving of a National Day if they manage to secure one of Africa’s three automatic tickets at the championship, not to talk of retaining their title.

Ever since winning Africa’s first football gold medal at the Olympics in 1996, which they unsuccessfully defended four years later in Sydney, Australia (a quarter-final exit), Nigeria has only ever missed out on qualification once (in 2012) but could well miss out on the 2020 men’s football event in Tokyo with the current crop of players.

Top of the list of worries is the inability of the coach Imama Amapakabo led team to score an away goal in 180 minutes of action as they lost to Libya and Sudan during the second and third qualification rounds.

Rather the team had to heavily rely on outscoring their opponents at home in the reverse fixtures, a major talking point which could be their Achilles heel when the tournament kickoff’s next week.

To put into proper context and highlight the severity of Nigeria’s away struggles, group B opponents Ivory Coast, Zambia and South Africa scored goals with ease on the road en route to a spot in Egypt. 

The Ivorians who Nigeria open their tournament against tallied four goals away to Niger Republic and Guinea, the same number as Zambia, who had to overcome hurdles presented by both Malawi and Congo before picking one of seven qualification tickets available. 

Final group opponents South Africa beat Angola 3-1 in Luanda in the second round, before stepping the gas down by playing a goalless away draw with Zimbabwe, four days after handing their neighbours a 5-nil dressing down in Johannesburg in the third round. 

Despite the lacklustre build-up to the competition, a goalless draw against Nigeria National League side, Niger Tornadoes on Tuesday, a result which has further heightened a lack of confidence in the squad, Kelechi Nwakali remains optimistic of the team’s chances in Egypt. 

Speaking with the NationSport, Nwakali who is one of the more talented and experienced members of the squad expressed a belief that Nigeria will secure an Olympic ticket at the conclusion of the competition.

“Of course, none of our three games is going to be easy but all the same, we must respect the opponents and not believing we can ride on everybody because we are Nigerians.

 “Our objective going to Egypt is to pick one of the tickets to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and I believe strongly we are going to achieve our aims by working hard as a team; and individually by bringing out our best qualities to help the team grow,” the SD Huesca midfielder said.

In the absence of Victor Osimhen (hat-trick hero against Libya), David Okereke, Samuel Chukwueze and Stephen Odey, all of whom are unavoidably absent due to club commitments, the Olympic Eagles’ goal-scoring responsibility falls on Taiwo Awoniyi and Ibrahim Sunusi.

The former in particular might just be presented with his last lifeline to impress for Nigeria, as anything close to another below-par performance in Egypt could mean the Mainz forward has kissed goodbye any opportunity of having a shot at the Super Eagles in the foreseeable future. 

For the present team to have any chance of returning from Egypt with an Olympic ticket in the bag, they need to rely less on natural ability and the unrelenting Nigerian spirit but work to fix the obvious loopholes that have become a steady feature in the last eight months, clearly one of the biggest tests of Amapakabo’s coaching career to date.