AFCON 2021: Nigeria – Team guide, key players and full fixtures

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All you need to know about the Super Eagles of Nigeria ahead of AFCON 2021.

Nigeria’s preparation for this year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has been rocked by so much upheaval that, four days to its opening match, as many as six starting positions remain up for grabs.

From sacking a long-serving manager three weeks out, to having its glut of striking talent whittled down to the barest of bones; all of the optimism has slowly leached out of fans, leaving only a pensive indifference.

In spite of all this though, it is impossible to truly write off a Nigerian team. The fact they are a hardy, defiant people is undeniable, but crucially Nigeria qualified quite nervelessly and without defeat, with only Algeria scoring more goals of the teams in Cameroon. Since the last AFCON, the Super Eagles have only lost one competitive match, and November’s draw with Cape Verde secured progress to the Playoff Round of World Cup qualifying.

According to FIFA’s rankings, Nigeria is Africa’s fifth-best team, and sit in 36th place in the world.

Nigeria’s most recent AFCON triumph came in 2013 under the late Stephen Keshi (IMAGO / Richard Wareham)

The history

Nigeria has a rich history at AFCON. Not only have they won three tournaments – in 1980, 1994 and 2013 – but they hold the record for the most bronze medal finishes with eight, and have been runners-up on four occasions. No country has made more semi-final appearances than Nigeria, and it is at that stage that they were eliminated last time out, conceding from a stoppage time Riyad Mahrez free kick to lose to eventual winners Algeria.

The coach and tactical approach

Nigeria go into the 2021 AFCON with a lot of uncertainty hanging over their managerial situation. Long-serving coach Gernot Rohr was relieved of his duties in December, and erstwhile technical director Austin Eguavoen was appointed in his stead. The former Nigeria international last managed Nigeria back in 2010, and would probably opt for a 4-4-2 or keep the same 4-2-3-1 that his predecessor was so enamoured with, but it remains to be seen how the Super Eagles will set up in Cameroon.

Key players

In the absence of Victor Osimhen, whose concatenation of recent misfortune came in the form of a positive COVID result, Nigeria will look to midfield general Wilfred Ndidi to step up and really lead this team. The Leicester man is a terrific tackler and has great defensive instincts, but increasingly he has showcased an aptitude for helping the team transition quickly out of defensive moments and into the attack, and is a powerful runner in open space.

Wilfred Ndidi (Instagram/Super Eagles)

In the final third, it is Samuel Chukwueze who will get star billing. The Villarreal man is only just back from a long-term injury, but returned in good form for his club, and was one of the breakout stars in 2019. He could take a huge step forward here. Creative responsibility will probably fall to Joe Aribo, who has blown hot and cold for Nigeria but on his day is an underrated presence arriving late in the box.

Young player

In Maduka Okoye, Nigeria has invested in a young goalkeeper with a great deal of upside. The 22-year-old has sharp reflexes, but concerns remain over his command of his penalty area and defensive line. With a centre-back pairing that has become increasingly error-prone, the Super Eagles will need their young goalkeeper to be in his very best form if they are to make a deep run in Cameroon.

Probable lineup

Nigeria national football team (IMAGO / Shengolpixs)

Maduka Okoye; Ola Aina, William Troost-Ekong, Chidozie Awaziem, Zaidu Sanusi; Wilfred Ndidi, Joe Aribo; Samuel Chukwueze, Alex Iwobi, Moses Simon; Kelechi Iheanacho.

Tournament prediction

Nigeria have a relatively straightforward group, and should qualify fairly comfortably. However, the draw throws up a number of difficult paths to the latter stages of the competition. With the disarray surrounding their coaching situation, it seems that a quarter-final place represents the upper limit of what is achievable for the Super Eagles.

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