On Monday, January 15, the Home-based Super Eagles will begin their campaign in the 2018 edition of the Africa Nations Championship, CHAN, with the aim of winning their first title.
The Eagles will be up against Rwanda at the Stade Ibn Batouta, Tangier in Morocco. Nigeria’s other group opponents are Libya and debutants Equatorial Guinea.
Although the CAF organised competition which is exclusively for players who are active in the national championships began in 2011 in Ivory Coast, it was in 2014 that the Super Eagles made their first appearance.
Although it took Nigeria time to qualify for the biennial championship, when the Eagles debuted in the championship whose matches are now recognised by FIFA as first team matches, they went all the way to the semi-finals where they were stopped by perennial rivals, the Black Stars of Ghana on penalties.
However, the late Stephen Keshi led Super Eagles defeated Zimbabwe 1-0 in the third place match to win bronze in their debut appearance.
Unfortunately, the Eagles failed to build on the success recorded in South Africa in 2014 as the squad led by former international Sunday Oliseh failed to rise to the occasion in Rwanda in 2016.
A team characterized by wrangling bothering on bonuses and other allowances, the Eagles failed to qualify from their group.
Though they started the competition on a promising note with 4-1 thrashing of Niger Republic courtesy of a Chisom Chikatara hat-trick and Osas Okoro’s goal, the Eagles drew their next match 1-1 with Tunisia before losing the final group match 0-1 to Guinea. They consequently raised and dashed the hopes of millions of Nigerians.
The first casualty of that dismal outing by the Super Eagles was the coach of the team, Oliseh who took the path of honour by resigning right there in Kigali as he cited unfavourable working conditions as reason for his action. His resignation did not come to many as a surprise.
Despite the sloppy performance in 2016, the present Super Eagles under the tutelage of coach Salisu Yusuf are brimming with infectious confidence. Such confidence may be questioned by their critics because they actually they actually struggled to overcome the Squirrels of Benin Republic to qualify for the 2018 CHAN.
However, going by their antecedents in terms of preparation, the CHAN Eagles have had a fairly decent preparation for the fifth edition of the championship which started on Friday.
After they qualified for their third CHAN, the Super Eagles used the Super 6 invitational tournament hosted by the LMC in Kano in December 2017 to kick start their preparation.
The Eagles defeated last year’s NPFL runners up MFM of Lagos 3-2 in the finals of the pre-season tournament which attracted other clubs like reigning NPFL champions, Plateau United, Akwa United, Enyimba FC and Kano Pillars.
From Kano, the team headed straight to Abuja to continue with preparations. Interestingly, there was no break for the players and officials of the Home-based Eagles as they celebrated both the Christmas and New Year in their Bolton White Hotel in Abuja.
At the end of the camping exercise, coach Yusuf settled the best 23 players made up of three goalkeepers, eight defenders, four midfielders and eight strikers for the championship.
Only four players from the 2016 squad, Captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Rabiu Ali (Kano Pillars), Osas Okoro (Enugu Rangers) and Stephen Eze (Kano Pillars) have made the present squad.
The remaining 19 players including the reigning NPFL highest goal scorer, Anthony Okpotu (Lobi Stars) will be making their debut in Morocco.
Other players for the 2018 CHAN are goalkeepers Dele Ajiboye (Plateau United), Theophilus Afelokai (Enyimba) and defenders Daniel James (Plateau United); Kalu Orji Okogbue (Rangers International); Ikouwem Utin (Enyimba FC); Abdullahi Musa (Wikki Tourists); Timothy Danladi (Katsina United); Ifeanyi Nweke (Kano Pillars); Stephen Eze (Kano Pillars)
The midfielders are: Ifeanyi Ifeanyi (Akwa United); Augustine Oladapo (Enyimba FC); Ekundayo Ojo (Sunshine Stars).
Although all eyes will be on Lobi Stars hitman, Okpotu to delivers the goals in Morocco, he will be supported by other strikers like Emeka Atuloma (Rivers United); Eneji Moses (Plateau United); Ibrahim Mustapha (Enyimba FC); Emeka Ogbuh (Rivers United); Sunday Faleye (Akwa United); Nura Muhammed (El-Kanemi Warriors) and Okechukwu Gabriel (Akwa United).
Without doubt the star players in the present squad are vastly experienced Kano Pillars captain, Rabiu Ali, Stephen Eze, Anthony Okpotu, Peter Eneji, Okechukwu Gabriel, Osas Okoro and team captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
Okpotu has promised to follow in the foot-steps of former Abia Warriors star, Chisom Chikatara who used the opening match of the 2016 championship against Niger Republic to announce himself to the world.
Chikatara’s (the kola-nut boy) hat-trick endeared him to the hearts of many clubs including reigning CAF Champions League winners Wayad Casablanca of Morocco who signed him after the tournament.
In a chat with SHOT! shortly before the team departed for Morocco, the ‘lightening’ Okpotu said he will play for the team but won’t mind going for personal glory.
He said he will use the first group match against Rwanda to also announce himself to the world by scoring the goals that would give the Eagles a convincing start in Morocco.
“I am happy to be part of the squad that will represent Nigeria at the 2018 CHAN in Morocco. This is going to be my first outing in the championship and I am looking forward to a good championship.
“As the holder of the highest goal scorer award, I know Nigerians are expecting so much from me but I am not going to put myself under pressure. I will play for the team but attempt to do the job of scoring too.
“Our match against Rwanda is crucial. If we start on a winning note, it will give us the confidence we need to do well in Morocco,” he said.
In the same vein, another player who will be making a debut appearance at the championship, Enyimba’s Mustapha Ibrahim said he will give his best for the team to succeed in Morocco.
According to him, the team is highly motivated to start the competition on a winning note. “We are ready to do the country proud. Although we respect all the countries that have qualified for the championship, we are not intimidated by any country’s profile,” he assured.
The Super Eagles are going to be up against experienced campaigners in Group C. Apart from Equatorial Guinea who are debuting, Rwanda and Libya are not new to CHAN.
Nigeria, Libya and Rwanda will be making their third appearances at the championship but the most successful of the three is Libya who won the 2014 edition in South Africa.
Rwanda who will face Super Eagles on Monday hosted the championship in 2016 and reached the quarter-finals. They made their debut in 2011in Sudan while Eagles debuted in 2014.
However, going by the latest FIFA ranking, the Super Eagles are the highest ranked team in the group. They are ranked 51 followed by Libya 88, Rwanda 113 and Equatorial Guinea 146.
Former international, Garba Lawal has advised the Super Eagles not to be deceived by their ranking as he said there are no more minnows in world football.
Speaking to SHOT!, the former Roda JC of Holland star said the Eagles should go for a convincing win in their opening match against Rwanda.
According to him victory against Rwanda will give the Eagles the right morale and self confidence to face the other group opponents.
“As professionals, the Eagles should know the importance of winning their first group match. It is not going to be an easy one for them but they must work hard to get a good result.
“If they pick the maximum points, it will bring necessary confidence in the team. They had a fairly good preparation so I am hoping for a good performance,” he said.
After their opening match on Monday, the Super Eagles will play again on Friday against Libya before travelling to Agadir to face Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday in their last group match.