It was not meant to start like this, at least not for Nigeria.
As one of the pre-tournament favourites for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the Super Eagles were expected to blitz their way past Equatorial Guinea and make a statement to their rivals.
However, a reality check is always not too far from those who fly too close to the sun and Nigeria found themselves nearly getting burnt, as they came from behind to draw 1-1 with the Nzalang Nacional.
Even for countries that boast the best players on the continent, the AFCON has often proved to be a tricky hunting ground.
As it would turn out, it was Victor Osimhen, the reigning CAF Footballer of the Year, who was most culpable as Jose Peseiro’s side wasted several great chances that denied them the three points against Equatorial Guinea.
Super Eagles face tougher test against hosts
As things stand, Nigeria have their work cut out for them as they go into their second group game against Ivory Coast. The hosts weren’t really at their best against Guinea-Bissau but they still managed to record a comfortable victory in the end.
A key mark of a good team is that it can fashion out victories even without playing well, and Ivory Coast are better than just good. While Equatorial Guinea ran the Super Eagles close, there is no doubt that Ivory Coast will give them a tougher test.
There are not many African teams that can go into a game against Nigeria and be considered favourites but the Elephants are among the select few currently, especially with Peseiro’s side winless in their last four matches.
Also, the hosts have momentum on their side. They will enjoy the benefit of the 12th man, via a charged support in the stadium, and are in a rich vein of form, having won each of their last four games, kept three clean sheets and impressively scored 18 goals within that period.
When Peseiro addressed the media in the aftermath of his side’s stalemate with Equatorial Guinea, he cut the figure of a man less concerned. “I'm sad about the result but not with the capacity of our performance,” the Portuguese said.
Indeed, Nigeria played well and created enough opportunities to have won their opening game, but the fact that they couldn’t convert their chances should be a cause for concern ahead of their clash with Ivory Coast, who have a stronger defence—and a swashbuckling offence.
Nigeria targets upset
The big question on the minds of many fans is whether Nigeria can get a good result against the hosts. While no one has a definitive answer, the Super Eagles can be encouraged by the fact that they have an attack that is capable of hurting any opponent.
In Osimhen, Moses Simon, Ademola Lookman and Samuel Chukwueze—and the likely return of Kelechi Iheanacho, Peseiro has at his disposal some lethal options that guarantee a lot of goals on their day.
However, the problem is that Nigeria’s attack has rarely clicked. Individually, they've all had their moments, but have rarely shone as a collective unit against decent opposition.
And against Ivory Coast, the Super Eagles will need to be at their best, both defensively and in attack, to get a favourable result. A lot is riding on this game, and more than just the three points at stake, it is also a test of the desire and big-game temperament of Nigeria’s players, whose commitment has been questioned at times by the public.
For Peseiro too, this could be a perfect opportunity to answer his critics.
Two of Africa’s heavyweights are set to slug it out on Thursday, and while the pressure is on, this encounter should be a pleasure for neutrals.