The Al Salam Stadium – the same venue where the Super Eagles beat Tunisia to win bronze at the 2019 AFCON – will host the 2019 U-23 African Cup of Nations opening Group B tie between champions Nigeria and Ivory Coast, as the quest for the 2020 Olympic ticket begins.
The Nigerian U-23 team are without captain Azubuike Okechukwu and striker Taiwo Awoniyi, as they look to defend the title they won in 2015 in Senegal, after both players were held back by their European clubs.
Head coach, Imama Amapakabo, will be hoping to have the two players available for the second game of the tournament when they face Zambia on Tuesday. But they must first get a decent result against the Ivorians to stand a chance of advancing to the next round.
According to a statement from the Nigeria Football Federation, midfielder Kelechi Nwakali will assume the armband in Okechukwu’s absence.
Despite missing the services of Okechukwu and Awoniyi, Amakapabo is not throwing in the towel.
“We have players in camp who are ready to give their all and do Nigeria proud any day, any time. We are quietly confident and will take it one match at a time.
“We are quite aware that as defending champions, so much is expected of us. This team will throw everything into the battle and ensure it does not disappoint Nigerians,” Amapakabo said.
Stand-in captain Nwakali said, “We know the importance of a positive start and we are just focused on getting our first three points against them (Ivory Coast) because that will put us in a very good position to reach the semifinals. It won’t be an easy one but we are very much prepared for the challenge ahead.”
In preparation for the tournament, the Nigeria U-23 contingent spent six days in Ismailia and played a 1-1 draw in their last game against Cameroon.
The Nigerian side will need to keep watch on Ivorian striker Christian Kouamé who scored twice in the qualifiers.
The 21-year-old has been in a brilliant form for Genoa, having scored five goals with three assists in Serie A this season and will be the key player for the Ivoirians.
Nwakali will be the man to lead the attack for Nigeria.
Nigeria scored nine goals and conceded three, while the Ivoirians had 10 goals, letting in three.