Freshly reinvigorated following a lengthy absence from the biennial continental football showpiece, the Super Eagles of Nigeria will have to hit top gear from the outset if they are to conquer the continent again.
In Egypt this year the Nigerians are in Group B with Guinea, Madagascar and Burundi, whom they’ll have to beat at Alexandria Stadium today (7pm SA time kick-off) in their opener in order to get their campaign up and running.
Having missed the 2015 and 2017 editions, the Super Eagles return to the continental showpiece under German coach Gernot Rohr who, after landing the job in 2016, inspired his side to the 2018 Fifa World Cup - where they unfortunately bowed out in the group stage.
But the Nigerians didn’t drop their heads, making a successful return to this 2019 Afcon. In the qualifiers, they had a blissful campaign, and topped Group E in the penultimate round – with their only blemishes the loss and draw to Bafana Bafana.
And this is why it would be suicidal for their opponents, especially those in their group, to think they are just back to make up the numbers in the newly formed 24-nation team tournament.
It may have been six years since they last played in the continental showpiece and, expectedly, some players have come in an others left.
But Rohr’s secret weapon has been to ensure that, old and new, all the players share his vision.
Ranked third in Africa, the Nigerians are seen as the group stage favourites. And against Burundi tonight, they’ll be led onto the field by the experienced John Obi Mikel, who made his debut, coincidentally, in the land of the Pharaohs in this tournament in 2006.
Expect fellow experienced campaigners Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa to still have a knack for goals, while there are some new, young gems who will be hoping to leave a benchmark in North Africa this time, just as Mikel did in 2006.
Leicester City’s Winfred Ndidi, 23, is an upcoming Super Eagle with a big heart, having starred in the 2018 World Cup at just 22. Still finding his feet in the national team, Samuel Chukwueze, 20, will be hoping to bring his domestic prowess from Spanish giants Villareal CF to international level.
Furthermore, also expect this tournament to be a touching tribute to former coach Stephen Keshi, should the Super Eagles really be crowned this year’s African Kings.
You see, in 2013, the last time Nigeria qualified and walked away with the Afcon title at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, they were guided by that son of the soil, the now late Keshi. A year later, the former Super Eagles’ captain and coach went on to achieve the improbable by leading his side to the Fifa World Cup knockout stage in Brazil. But then the gloves came off between the “Big Boss” and the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), with the latter unceremoniously citing “a lack of commitment”.