Considering this will be Nigeria’s first appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations since winning it in 2013, it is a bit jarring that the Super Eagles are one of the favourites to go all the way in Egypt.
This unexpected but thoroughly welcome turn of events is due to a combination of factors, but it is impossible to examine without acknowledging the role of German manager Gernot Rohr. Under his watch, Nigeria has rediscovered the pleasure of qualifying for tournaments with relative ease.
After the initial hiccup of a home loss against South Africa on the opening day of qualifying, the three-time African champions were near flawless, winning four of their remaining five to top their group.
With the announcement of an expansion to the AFCON, from 16 to 24 teams, qualification never really looked in jeopardy, even though there were some nerves in the 3-2 win over Libya in Sfax in September. There, Rohr’s side frittered away an early two-goal lead, but shook itself awake just in time to ensure there would be no slip-up.
If there has been any tension or uncertainty about the Nigerian team, it has centred almost entirely on the leave of absence taken by captain John Obi Mikel following the World Cup. The lack of a clarity concerning his status within the team dominated headlines, and there was a worry it could affect the focus of the side.
That, however, appears to have been resolved now, and Mikel will lead the side out in Egypt.
Rohr has favoured a 4-2-3-1 shape in his time in charge, although he has recently been keener to dabble with a 3-5-2 for tougher matches, or when he needs a result.
Nigeria plays mostly on the break, seeking to exploit the speed of its wide players, which is considerable. Ahmed Musa is without a doubt one of the quickest players on the continent, and the likes of Henry Onyekuru, Odion Ighalo and Samuel Kalu are no slouches either.
The concern with counter-attacking sides, naturally, is how they fare when faced with an opponent that denies them space to counter into.
As referenced earlier: pace. A lot of it. It allows the team to vary the rhythm of moves from one moment to the next, thereby catching opponents out.
At the risk of lapsing into stereotype, there is also something to be said for a German manager instilling efficiency into a team. That precisely is what Rohr has brought to bear in the Super Eagles, as well as a sense of calm.
That can veer too far in the opposite direction (the World Cup is a good example of this), but Nigeria will largely be patient and picks its moments in attack. When those moments come, the breaks are swift and decisive.
The Achilles’ Heel
Since Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2017, there has been no security in the goalkeeping situation for Nigeria.
Time has mostly been shared between Ikechukwu Ezenwa, the 30-year-old whose flamboyance renders him extremely erratic, and 20-year-old Francis Uzoho whose inexperience inspires no confidence whatsoever.
The days when Nigeria could boast the continent’s finest in Vincent Enyeama are long gone. Worse than the fact that neither option has convinced is that there is no consensus on which is the lesser “evil”. Whenever an opponent lines a shot up in Egypt, Nigerians will be holding their breaths, whoever is in goal.
Most obviously: Odion Ighalo. There are higher profile players in the side, and even more skilled individuals, but he has filled a problem position and done so with aplomb.
The challenge now for the AFCON Qualifying top scorer is to replicate his heroics at a major international tournament.
The Hipster’s Choice
Wilfred Ndidi. It’s hard to be understated when you play in the Premier League, but there is an unfussy efficiency to the Leicester man’s play.
The 22-year-old brings mobility and tenacity in the middle for the Super Eagles, and would be the most difficult to replace like-for-like.
Rohr, 65, has had an interesting career piloting some of the continent’s lesser lights. Memorably, he took hosts Gabon to the last eight in 2012. Objectively, he has taken very well to managing against higher expectations, although there are question marks over his ability to take the team up another level.
Any less than a place in the semi-finals would realistically be considered a disappointment. Beyond that, depending on the draw, it is up in the air.