Hours from now, Nigeria’s Super Eagles will take on Bafana Bafana of South Africa in a crucial 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
The Eagles head into the tie top of the group on nine points – one ahead of their opponents – and needing only to avoid defeat to return to the continental showpiece after missing out on the last two editions.
Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr has made clear his side won’t settle for less in South Africa as he looks to repeat the impressive feat of qualifying for a major tournament with a game to spare having done same in the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
Also, there’s the minor issue of revenge on the minds of the lads after their qualification campaign began on a false note with a 2-0 defeat at home to South Africa.
Nigeria head into this tie with momentum coming off the back of three successive wins – including the doubleheader victory over Libya last month – but injuries to key players, and suspensions, have cast some shadows on their preparation.
In-form striker Jude Odion Ighalo misses out, while midfield Trojan Wilfred Ndidi did not make the trip following his booking in the 3-2 win over Libya in Sfax.
Also on the injury list are first choice goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and regular right-back Abdullahi Shehu.
Rohr acknowledges the absences, but sees the situation as an opportunity for others to make their case in the side.
“Yes, we have a number of injuries and one suspension. But we cannot continue to talk about that,” the Franco-German tactician said before the team departed for Johannesburg Thursday.
“We must look at the personnel with us now and see the situation as opportunity for them to step up and prove what they can do. I am happy we have a young team determined to achieve. Everyone here is good enough to represent Nigeria and they will go in there and do the job.”
So far, the coach is keeping his cards close to his chest with regards to his selection and tactical approach to the game.
But given the players invited and their form in the lead up to today’s clash, it’s unlikely the coach will deviate from the 4-3-3 formation he’s successfully deployed since after the World Cup.
In the absence of Uzoho, Ikechukwu Ezenwa is likely to return in goal for his first cap since Nigeria’s 1-1- draw away to Algeria in a World Cup qualifier dead rubber a year ago.
Chidozie Awaziem – who got a goal in the 3-0 drubbing of Seychelles – should slot in for Abdullahi in right-back while Jamiu Collins is expected to keep his place at left-back having impressed in the games against Libya.
The ‘Oyinbo Wall’ of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong will continue their partnership at the heart of the defence to complete the back four.
With Ndidi out, Baer Sheva’s John Ogu is the most likely candidate to slot into the defensive midfield role to provide cover for the marauding duo of Oghenekaro Etebo and Alex Iwobi.
Stand-in skipper Ahmed Musa will surely retain his place in attack, where he will be joined by new kid on the block, Samuel Kalu, and, as it stands, Isaac Success in the central striker role.
Barring any unforeseen changes, this is the most likely starting XI for Nigeria against a Stuart Baxter’s side missing a number of key players including captain Dean Furman, Bongani Zungu, Keegan Dolly, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Bradlet Grobler and Kamohelo Mokotjo.
The Eagles will however have to watch out for the threat posed by Percy Tau and Thulani Serero, in the absence of Tokelo Rantie, who has scored three of South Africa’s last five goals against Nigeria.