Emmanuel Amuneke scored twice as Nigeria beat Zambia 2-1 to hand his side their second Africa Cup of Nations crown, 25 years ago in Tunis, the Tunisian capital.
Managed by Dutchman Clemens Westerhof, the Eagles had edged out a stubborn Ivory Coast team (defending champions at the time) via a penalty shootout en route to the final.
The West Africans had finished third in the immediate past edition, in 1992, as well as getting to the final in 1990 (they were beaten one nil by the host nation, Algeria).
Although Nigeria last won the continental football showpiece in 2013 in South Africa, piping Burkina Faso by a lone goal, they did not feature in the last two editions, in 2015 and 2017.
Eagles’ Wings Clipped
Gernot Rohr was appointed in 2016 and handed the mission of qualifying Nigeria for the World Cup in Russia, 2018.
He did that undefeated in a group that had Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia, but the Eagles didn’t fly above the first stage of the competition, as against their second-round finish in Brazil 2014.
— Ángel di María (@AngeIDiMariaJM) June 26, 2018
The team bounced back from the disappointment of Russia 2018 and an earlier 2-0 loss at home to South Africa in their first Group E qualification game for the 2019 AFCON to book a ticket to the continental competition.
They cruised into Egypt in stunning fashion with 13 points, as leaders, after four wins and one draw.
Nigeria were then drawn in Group B with debutants Burundi and Madagascar, as well as Guinea for the tournament in Egypt, and football fans in Africa’s most populous country are hoping for a repeat of the 1994 success.
Mountain Of Expectations
Rohr is aware of the huge expectations on his boys going into the 2019 AFCON and admitted it following their crash at the World Cup.
The Franco-German has, however, played down expectations of his team winning it, conceding that he is aiming to be among the top three in Egypt.
“Our ambition is to go very far in this competition in Egypt and with a country like Nigeria, the ambition is to get to the podium,” he told The Nation earlier this year.
He admitted that “people expect so much from us when we go for this completion (AFCON) because presently we are number three in Africa but our priority in AFCON will be to be among the best three teams.”
Iheanacho, Onazi Miss Out
Preparations for the African championship were devoid of squabbles. This was what the team also enjoyed during the pre-2018 World Cup period.
There were a few changes, some surprising, from the team that took part in the World Cup in the summer of 2018.
2013 AFCON winners Ogenyi Onazi and Elderson Echijile, as well as Kelechi Iheanacho, were the biggest omissions. The first two were part of the Eagles side at the 2014 World Cup, too.
— The NFF 🇳🇬 (@thenff) June 9, 2019
Ola Aina, who plays with Torino (he narrowly missed out on the World Cup), Paul Onuachu, and Victor Osimhen were given spots in the squad to Egypt.
Eagles: Too Young To Fly?
According to the team’s Head Coach, Rohr, his boys are young, a statement he re-echoed following their exit from the World Cup.
In Russia, they were the second youngest team, with an average age of 24 years, and this could be a big boost for the West Africans in Egypt.
The likes of Villarreal winger Samuel Chukwueze, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, on-loan Everton star Henry Onyekuru, Leicester City’s midfield enforcer Wilfred Ndidi, Samuel Kalu, Francis Uzoho, Victor Osimhen and Ola Aina will provide the West African side the much-needed energy in an expanded AFCON.
With Chukwueze heading to his maiden finals following his exploits in the La Liga this past season, notching seven goals, many are counting on this wing wizardry to help Nigeria unlock defence lines in Egypt.
Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi also concurs that the current crop of Super Eagles stars “are still young and the future is very bright with young talent in the team. There is a lot of hope and a bright future ahead of us.”
Ighalo Firing On All Cylinders
There’s no shortage of attacking firepower going into Egypt, with China-based forward Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa in the Eagles’ ranks.
Ighalo, a former Watford marksman, topped the scorers’ chart during the qualification for the biennial football showpiece.
He bagged seven goals in six matches, ensuring that Burundi’s Fiston Abdul Razak took second.
En route to Egypt, Nigeria netted 14 goals, conceding six. However, they have failed to strike in their last two games.
The game against Senegal, considered one of the favourites for the crown come July 19th, was a true test for Nigeria.
With Ighalo, Rohr and his team will hope to reverse the situation knowing that goals are the lifeblood of football.
Veterans Lead AFCON Quest
In Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo, the 1980 African kings have the experience to cover up for any lapses.
These players were part of the nucleus of the team that won the AFCON in 2013, and have played at two consecutive World Cups – 2014 and 2018.
The pacy Musa has scored at two consecutive editions of the World Cup and is the Eagles’ highest goal scorer at the global competition.
Omeruo’s rising confidence will also do much at the heart of the side’s defensive line.
Mikel, the captain of the side, was on hiatus during the qualification race but his return and experience may prove a big difference for Nigeria.
He’s essentially the most experienced player the three-time African champions have in Egypt having played in the English Premier League, won the UEFA Champions League, and got a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics football event.
Mikel featured at the 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013 editions of the African Cup of Nations and has 88 caps (before the 2019 AFCON) for the senior team, also.
The 2019 AFCON, according to Mikel, “will be a tough tournament” and so is winning it.
The former Chelsea man, an ex-teammate, Efe Ambrose, told Goal Nigeria, “is the captain and also a leader in the team; he has also seen it all so his experience will be very crucial for the Super Eagles.
“There are so many players in the squad who are playing the competition for the first time, so Mikel’s presence will help propel them to give their best.”
Goalkeeping Proving Knotty
Although Nigerians want the team to win the competition, the goalkeeping department is still shaky for the Eagles.
Since Carl Ikeme’s ailment (a leukemia diagnosis), Nigeria have had to shuttle between youngster Francis Uzoho, Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi in goal.
And according to 1996 Olympic gold medalist, Taribo West, that is one area that the boys and the coaches have to work on.
“A lot of talking must be done between the defence line and the goalkeeper, that’s one thing I believe should be done during the matches,” the former Inter Milan star said to Brila FM.
Stability Key To Success
However, a former international and Bolton captain ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha believes the team has progressed and gained stability since Rohr took charge in August, 2016.
Okocha believes that with adequate preparation, his countrymen would get the ultimate prize in the Maghreb nation.
“As far as the Africa Cup,” he was quoted as saying by DW, “I think we (Nigeria) have a chance to get far in the tournament and possibly win it all.
“Because we’ve been progressing in the last few years. There is a certain level of stability. The coach Gernot Rohr knows his team now he’s been there since 2016. He knows the expectations are high, but it won’t be easy.”
If the stability that Rohr has brought to the team, since he took over, paid off, and the team’s blend of youth and experience clicked, Nigeria may well reconquer the continent – 25 years after they did it in another North African country, Tunisia.