The Super Eagles are en route to Dubai, where they’ll be camping ahead of the tournament in the Ivory Coast.
With just 10 days to the start of the AFCON, though, Jose Peseiro has been left sweating over the fitness of some of his key players, including Ndidi's Leicester City teammate Kelechi Iheanacho.
Leicester City midfielder Ndidi has been completely ruled out of the tournament, with his injury confirmed to be more serious than first thought.
Alhassan Yusuf replaces Ndidi in Nigeria squad
As a result, the 27-year-old missed the Foxes’ previous game in the English Championship against Huddersfield Town and is expected to be sidelined for a while. Club teammate Iheanacho is equally racing against time to be fit for the AFCON, having also suffered a muscle injury on New Year’s Eve.
But with Nigeria stacked with options upfront, it is Ndidi’s absence that is likely to trouble Peseiro the most. The former Genk man is the most experienced defensive midfielder in the Super Eagles squad and his withdrawal leaves behind a huge void.
The Super Eagles boss has, however, moved quickly to invite Alhassan Yusuf as Ndidi’s replacement. Yusuf was initially included in Nigeria’s provisional squad for the tournament but was controversially dropped from the final list.
The Royal Antwerp midfielder now has a chance to prove his worth and fight for a starting spot at the AFCON, where Nigeria are paired against hosts Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in Group A.
How Nigeria could line up without Ndidi
The Super Eagles are very thin in the middle of the park, with Peseiro opting to take only five midfielders to the AFCON. With Ndidi ruled out of the tournament, it remains to be seen which midfield combinations the Portuguese will go with after drafting Yusuf into the squad.
Nigeria’s bane in past tournaments has been the lack of balance and that problem still rings true as they go into this year’s AFCON with unconvincing goalkeeping options, an inconsistent defence, a lack of depth in midfield and a star-studded attack.
An Alhassan-Onyeka pivot? Iwobi as a roving 8?
To make it work, though, Peseiro will have to get his midfield variations right. The 63-year-old could opt for 4-2-3-1, with Frank Onyeka and the versatile Yusuf operating as the no.6 and no.8, respectively, while Alex Iwobi and Joe Aribo are utilised further up the pitch.
Alternatively, Peseiro could be a bit more daring by playing an old-fashioned 4-4-2. Here, Onyeka would sit at the base of midfield while Iwobi, who has played as a mobile no.8 in the past, can assume that role beside the Brentford man.
There’s also the argument for 4-3-3, should Peseiro be aiming to play to the strength of the attacking players at his disposal. A midfield trio of Onyeka, Iwobi and Aribo could provide the creativity that the front three – be it Victor Osimhen, Victor Boniface and Ademola Lookman or Victor Osimhen, Victor Boniface and Samuel Chukwueze – needs to thrive while also guaranteeing defensive cover.
Onyeka as a foil?
One more midfield variation that Peseiro could try is the 4-1-3-2 formation, with Onyeka playing as a lone no.6, while Iwobi, Aribo and one of Chukwueze or Lookman could offer width for the attacking pair of Osimhen and Boniface.
Irrespective of how Nigeria line up in the Ivory Coast, Peseiro’s ability to bring balance to the side will be their make-or-break point. And with the limited profiles of his midfield options, the Portuguese has his work cut out.
The Super Eagles, though, still have enough to get past the group stage. But as to whether they can go all the way to annex that elusive fourth continental title remains to be seen.