Will a blunt attack cost Nigeria the AFCON?
Background Image: Marc Ryckaert (MJJR), CC BY-SA 3.0
It has been a busy year so far. Hasn't it? From the domestic leagues to Europe, international competition rolled in immediately with the Copa America, AFCON and Gold Cup. The women are on show, too, at the World Cup in France. Football fans are surely enjoying the thrills.
Africa's most prestigious tournament kicked off on Friday. Hosts Egypt secured a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe. The Pharaohs will approach the next game against DR Congo confidently. They have high hopes of winning the title on home soil, but they'll face some tough hurdles along the way.
Nigeria rank among the AFCON'S frontrunners. The Super Eagles produced a good start on Saturday by defeating Burundi, 1-0. They hope to bring back the trophy which the nation last won in 2013. Missing out on the previous competition two years ago broke fans' hearts. The best way to ease that pain is a triumph in Egypt.
Nigerians can be hopeful. To start with, they have a strong defence. Any attack will struggle to break them down. Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong's partnership is one of the continent's best. John Mikel Obi, Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo add solidity to the midfield. All three are physically strong and brutal on approach. They out-power opponents to shield an already powerful backline. Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi will complete the task by adding creative, attacking instinct.
What more can manager Gernot Rohr ask for, then?
A proficient attack for one. Trophy-winning teams need a brilliant frontline. Ask recent Champions League-winner Jurgen Klopp and England-dominating Pep Guardiola.
Nigeria can't boast of that. They find it difficult to score when up against tough defenders. In their recent friendlies, they failed to find the net against both Senegal and Zimbabwe. That was followed with a narrow win over Burundi, a team world-ranked 134th. Odion Ighalo's goal was the only thing sparing his nation's blushes.
Rohr made a big decision in dropping Kelechi Iheanacho from his final 23-man AFCON squad. The reasons are understandable. The Leicester City striker scored just one goal in 30 Premier League appearances this season. That proves how far he's dropped. His finishing needs a serious polish. The German gaffer felt he couldn't include a player who's lost his shooting boots.
Nigeria's on-duty strikers aren't reliable, either. Though in a little better form than Iheanacho, Moses Simon failed to impress in front of goal this campaign. He notched just once in 23 games on loan at Levante. Samuel Kalu is another who can't be trusted. The 21-year-old's four season goals in 31 matches is nothing to shout home about.
That means the Super Eagles must rely on Ighalo, Samuel Chukwueze, Paul Onuachu, Victor Osimhen and Henry Onyekuru to find the net. They each scored more than 7 goals this campaign. Onyekuru struck an impressive 16 times for Galatasaray.
Comparing Nigeria's attacking strength to other tournament favourites like Senegal and Egypt shows they are a step behind. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are the finest African attackers on parade. The Liverpool duo aims to add the AFCON to the Champions League trophy they won in May.
A moment of brilliance from Mahmoud Trezeguet did Egypt's job in the opening game, proving the Pharaohs don't always need talisman Salah. Likewise, Mane will be fully supported by fine Senegal attackers in Ismaila Sarr, Keita Balde, Mbaye Niang, Moussa Konate and Sada Thioub. The Lions of Teranga are well endowed from back to front, strong enough to send fear down the spines of all opposition.
For Nigeria, making the knockout round won't be a problem. They've already picked up three points and up next have winnable games against Guinea and Madagascar. However, the Super Eagles should then expect the worst. A blunt attack is a stumbling block in their path to the trophy.