Nigeria’s Super Eagles take on the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone this month in Afcon qualifying matches expected to further entrench the narrative always touted with much gusto and great pride by fans of Gernot Rohr: Nigeria qualifying for major tournaments with games to spare. And, judging by the calibre of the opposition – Sierra Leone, a team currently languishing in a pitiful 120 position in the FiFa rankings – there is not expected to be any departure from this narrative (fingers crossed). As players start to pour into the camp for what should be a routine assignment of 6 points and flamboyant displays from Nigeria’s superstar “young” players, I take a look at the players battling for positions in these encounters. This exercise assumes Rohr will elect for his much-favoured 4-3-2-1 formation. My assumptions are also based on the premise that each player shows up and they are all fit to play on match days. Goalkeeper: This is going to be a two horse race between Daniel Akpeyi and Maduka Okoye. Akpeyi makes a return to the team having overcome concussion and Okoye – with at least 2 league games under his belt – will be hoping to continue in goal after impressive displays in October friendlies. My Prediction : Rohr may just bite the bullet and stick with Okoye. I doubt very much that a vast majority of fans will have any problem if this is what plays out – Akpeyi has never been a fan favourite. Fullbacks: You’ve got 6 fullbacks vying for 2 available slots (make that 4 slots over 2 games). I thought about this and felt that only Shehu Abdullahi stands a chance of not seeing any action across the 2 legs. Sanusi, Aina, Ebuehi, Awaziem and Collins all have near-equal chances of being selected. Yes Sanusi blew collective fans’ minds away with his beautifully implemented displays in October friendlies; I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that the left back shirt is his to keep. Prediction : I expect Sanusi to be allowed to continue (on this occasion) on the left with Aina moved to the right (where he is excelling for Fulham) in the first leg. Sanusi retains his (starting) position in the second leg (with Collins introduced later on) whilst any of Ebuehi or Awaziem starts on the right in the second leg. Centre-backs: Love him or hate him, Omeruo remains a likely starting 11 option if he is fit and playing regular club football. With him out of the picture this time, I see Rohr reverting to type. Make no mistake about it: the once decrepit and dilapidating Oyinbo wall is back stronger than ever. Yes Ekong has been unconvincing in Nigeria colours recently but something tells me that his move to Watford will give rise to a re-birth in Super Eagles colours. Prediction : it is Ekong and Balogun to start all the way in both encounters. One of them might be substituted within each match for Akpoguma or Awaziem. Midfielders: This is a funny one because, if Rohr elects to utilise Semi Ajayi as his holding midfielder, who loses out, Aribo or Etebo? Iwobi on his part is sure to start as the attacking midfielder. Aribo has been courting the headlines lately with scintillating performances for Scottish giants Rangers whilst there are those like Pastor Taribo West who believe that Etebo’s rugged style is more suited for the African terrain. Prediction : Ajayi starts as the DM, Etebo starts as the CM in the first match while Iwobi is the AM. Aribo may well start ahead of Etebo in the reverse fixture with the other 2 retaining their places. Wingers: I believe Samuel Chukwueze and Ahmed Musa will start, at least in the first match. Rohr will be hoping to finish off the Sierra Leoneans in the initial leg and for this to happen, he will be relying on his trusted Generals (whether they are clubless or not). The absence of Moses Simon and Samuel Kalu has provided Panadol for the selection headache Rohr would otherwise have had in this area. Verdict: I do think the first match will see Chukwueze and Musa. In the second leg, Chukwueze retains his place on the right but Rohr might elect to start any of Dennis or Ejuke on the left. Centre forward: If Onuachu starts the first match, even Rohr’s most ardent supporters will desert him in their droves! This is a straight battle between a resurging Iheanacho and the poster-boy of Nigerian football Victor Osihmen.
For the centre forward role, each player brings something different. Iheanacho’s vision and suave against Oshimen’s directness and killer instinct. Prediction : I expect Osihmen to be restored to his position in both legs. Rohr – I think – will find a way to accommodate Iheanacho into the team but not to the detriment of Osihmen (at this point). In a way, Iheanacho will be fighting the same battle for club and country: for Leicester it is Jamie Vardy, for Nigeria, it is Victor Osihmen.
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