AFCON 2021 Preview: Group D
Carlos Queiroz is trusting some Egyptian veterans at the expense of in-form favourites, Augustine Eguavoen will wonder how all his best attackers suddenly became unavailable, Baciro Candé has Pele in his Bissau-Guinean ranks again, and a new-look Sudanese team just want to get some experience.
Nigeria to Surprise Africa Again, Like in 2013?
With their music, movies and cultural expressions perpetually in the world’s consciousness, a very Nigerian phrase has gone global.
“Naija no dey carry last!” literally translates as “Nigeria never takes the last position”. As if to say, in the end, Nigeria comes out on top. It is the best description of the country – a frustratingly blessed nation with sashaying moods of victory and failure, capable of incredible lows and glorious victories.
It also perfectly describes the Super Eagles – an enigma that will flop horribly when expected to soar, then shock their way to electric victories. Look no further than the last seven years as proof.
Since they last won the AFCON in 2013, Nigeria have managed to achieve a quirky stat: they’ve qualified for two World Cup tournaments but failed to make the 2015 and 2017 AFCON events. Bizarre? No, that’s just Nigeria for you.
Finally, in 2019, they joined Africa’s best in Egypt, but the functional kind of football that Gernot Rohr hewed together got them third place. And yet, his teams resembled nothing of the panache-laden sides of the past.
The Franco-German has now been sacked and the new man is Augustine Eguavoen – who, as it turns out, coached Nigeria to third place in the 2006 AFCON. That was after he was an assistant two years earlier, where the team also finished third. This is a different time; he does not have Joseph Yobo at centre back or John Utaka at right back. Or Jay-Jay Okocha at his creative best.
This time, he’s got Ahmed Musa, the most capped Nigerian of all time and team captain, who cannot even be sure he’ll start games. This time, he’s faced with uncertain preparations. To be fair, the current global climate means most teams coming to Cameroon have similar problems.
The Attack That Never Was
By Christmas, all the talk was about how the Super Eagles were expected to score with reckless abandon. After all, they had in-form Emmanuel Dennis (joint-fourth top scorer in the Premier League), Taiwo Awoniyi (the joint-fifth top scorer in the Bundesliga), and Victor Osimhen (joint-fourth top scorer in the Europa League).
Or so they thought.
In a matter of days, Osimhen – who had been injured but keen on playing in Cameroon – was confirmed to be Covid positive. Watford and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) both announced that Dennis wouldn’t show up for the tournament, with the Hornets blaming an administrative error from Super Eagles officials. Nigeria accused Watford of ‘baring fangs’. No matter, Dennis isn’t coming.
Genk forward Paul Onuachu, a certainty for this tournament, got injured just before the squad was named. It left Nigeria to once again rely on former Manchester United man Odion Ighalo. He had been persuaded to return from international retirement by former coach Rohr only months ago and was expected to beef up this squad.
In a twist worthy of fantasy, the player’s Saudi club, Al-Shabab, has a clause in his contract barring him from playing in tournaments with the Super Eagles. It is worth noting, however, that he was allowed to play in the last game of the qualifiers against Cape Verde.
Ighalo, who is currently the top scorer of the Saudi Pro League with 11 goals, wasn’t too pleased with the decision, and has failed to show up for club training at the time of writing.
With time running out for Nigeria, they’ve immediately replaced the 2019 AFCON top scorer with Cyriel Dessers, who plies his trade with Feyenoord. The 27-year-old striker has 10 goals and one assist in 23 competitive appearances for the Dutch side so far in 2021-22.
So, Who Gets Nigeria’s Goals?
Goals can be expected from Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi – who’s scored nine in 17 Bundesliga appearances so far in 2021-22, or Sadiq Umar (UD Almeria) and Peter Olayinka (Sparta Prague). They are not in the same class as the prolific Osimhen or the reliable Ighalo, but Nigeria may yet not miss Dennis, who has streaks of indiscipline and could have destabilised team chemistry.
Qualifying was surprisingly, uninspiring. They did top the group, but they were by no means flying. Highlights (or low lights?) included the two-legged horror show against Sierra Leone.
Fun fact: the home leg was scheduled for Benin City and it was so widely expected that Nigeria would trounce their opposition that the NFF President, the country’s Sports Minister and state governor kitted up and actually trained with the team!
The Super Eagles flew into a 4-0 lead, only for the game to, somehow, finish 4-4. Days later, the two sides met in the reverse and drew goalless. This, on hindsight, was the beginning of the end for Rohr because Sierra Leone, Benin and Lesotho are usually expected not to present a big challenge to the three-time champions.
Coupled with the fact that during the World Cup qualifiers, Nigeria lost at home for the first time in about four decades to lowly Central African Republic (CAR), one can understand the lack of optimism around this team.
Rohr vs. Eguavoen
In fact, because of how close Rohr’s sacking was to the AFCON, the current squad is virtually his, as he had already submitted a provisional list to the Confederation of African Football. Eguavoen, who has been Technical Director of Nigerian football since 2020, has been around the team, but has not coached them. In essence, he knows the team, but with enough time, would have shaped the team differently.
Eguavoen will only lead the Super Eagles for the interim with new coach José Peseiro travelling with the team as “an observer.”
Peseiro seems to have got the nod due to his familiarity with data (he probably reads The Analyst, too). NFF president Amaju Pinnick was swept off his feet by the attention to detail demonstrated by the former Porto manager.
“If you look at Peseiro, when I was talking to him, he was talking as if he has been coaching the Super Eagles for a long time.
“He said, ‘listen, Nigeria, you played against Croatia in 2018, in your World Cup opening match, they did not dominate you. It was about 45%/55% ball possession’. And he said, ‘Croatia eventually played in the final of the World Cup, it could have been Nigeria’.
“I got impressed. He brought software to analyse the strength of our players. He gave me analysis of everyone our players scientifically. I was taken aback,” Pinnick said.
One thing is clear, and that’s how Nigeria aim to alter their footballing direction and skew it towards a more scientific approach. The Peseiro appointment is for the future, and though he will be with the team, there are immediate concerns Eguavoen has to address.
In midfield, for example, the team seems to have similar players: hardworking, physical, but they do not have those who can unlock defences or to transition well. The loss against CAR highlighted this flatness and glaring lack of transition play.
Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze has flair but is best deployed on the wings – plus he’s just returning from a long-term injury. In a video on social media, the Villarreal winger was seen standing in front of his kneeling mother, who was praying for his leg.
Eguavoen will be hoping the prayers do work and Chukwueze stays fit because once he finds his form, he can be the key for this Nigerian side.
Of players to have played 1500+ minutes in La Liga since the start of last season, only nine have been involved in a shot following a ball carry (either having the shot or creating a chance from one) more frequently than Chukwueze (every 66 mins).
The 22-year-old’s ability to score and also create goal scoring opportunities will be vital to Eguavoen.
More Creativity Needed
Another creative option from wide could be Nantes winger Moses Simon. He has been a constant feature in the Super Eagles side starting all their six World Cup qualifiers so far. The 26-year-old is having his best creative season providing six assists and creating 42 chances in just 18 matches. His expected assists per 90 currently sits at 0.31 which is the third best rate in this season’s Ligue 1 for players to have played 1000+ minutes.
Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho has been argued as having the skillset to be creative, but it’s hit and miss with him these days as his form is not what it was a year ago. This is due to the limited minutes he’s received this season since the arrival of Patson Daka.
Regardless, Iheanacho is adept at taking his chances. Of all Africans to have scored 20 or more goals in the history of the Premier League, Kelechi Iheanacho has the sixth-best minutes per goal ratio.
You suspect Nigeria may still need more in terms of creativity especially from the middle of the park.
Step in Kelechi Nwakali, a prodigy at youth level who commands sentimental clamourings from many fans. After winning MVP of the Under-17 World Cup in 2015, he’s since gone on a long list of loans and transfers, never really fulfilling his potential.
It is he, now playing for Huesca in Spain’s second division, whose surprising call up means he will carry the creative burden. The other player who may be trusted is Alex Iwobi, but the problem is he has had many years of trying without delivering much success. Despite being the nephew of the great Okocha, he is nothing close in practice.
Last season was Iwobi’s worst-ever for underlying numbers (xG and xA per 90 minutes), while his poor form especially for creating chances has continued this season.
Behind them could be Frank Onyeka of Brentford in defensive midfield. He specialises in breaking up play, just as Wilfred Ndidi does so well.
Since the beginning of last season in the Premier League, Ndidi has averaged the most tackles and interceptions combined per 90 minutes (6.3).
They should be expected to feature in double pivots if they play. A more dynamic option is Rangers’ Joseph Aribo, who is more box-to-box and covers more ground. Aribo has started the most open-play sequences that have led to shots in the Scottish Premiership this season. Overall, he’s been involved in 126 passing sequences in open play that have led to a shot for Rangers – the fourth-highest tally in the league.
In defence, Rangers’ Leon Balogun is injured, meaning his usual partnership with Watford’s William Troost-Ekong will not be seen. The question is whether Troost-Ekong should even start, given his erratic form this season. Being the stand-in captain makes that decision a difficult one to take, and perhaps Eguavoen must make a bold decision.
If he does, Alanyaspor’s Chidozie Awaziem, former Chelsea man Kenneth Omeruo (now with Leganes and who partnered Troost-Ekong in 2019) are options. Then there’s the wildcard that is South African-based Olisa Ndah.
It is said that the coach rates the latter very highly and it will not be surprising to see the Orlando Pirates man get playing time. Ndah, whose performances for Nigerian Premier League side Akwa United powered them to the domestic title last season, earned a move to Pirates in mid-2021 and has been superb since.
In fact, his style is compared to the great Yobo – sleek, fast, strong, and effective. And what would you know, Yobo himself is a member of this team’s backroom staff.
Will You Bet on the Eagles?
Playing in Cameroon holds special significance for Nigeria, because the Eagles’ Garoua base is a short drive from one of Nigeria’s north-eastern borders. The proximity could play a huge role as Nigeria are known to have big fan contingents even when Nations Cup tournaments are played farther from home. Nigeria are the co-favourites in our tournament simulation model, together with Morocco. But standing in their way will be the mighty – and formidable – Egypt.
Three months is a long time in football.
If the AFCON were played in September, there could have been unanimity in feeling that the Pharaohs would flop, because under former coach Hossam El Badry, they played some dire football. He was in charge for nine games and took a monthly salary of $52,000, in which time he won five and drew four – but the devil was in the details.
After Egypt drew with Gabon in Libreville via a last-gasp equaliser, the FA took action. Enter Carlos Queiroz. The former Manchester United assistant manager has built a more organised teamand is not afraid of big calls.
Tarek Hamed, widely regarded as the best African-based defensive midfielder in the last few years, has not been called up for this tournament. Queiroz, as Iran (where he is beloved for his outstanding work managing the national side between 2011 and 2019) will readily recall, offered no reason. His style is to take decisions, stand by them and publicly admit when he is wrong.
Hamed’s absence could, however, be a problem because his elegance instantly improves the Pharaohs, as was the case in the 2019 AFCON. In last month’s Arab Cup, the way Egypt suffered against Tunisia and Algeria further bolstered this notion that perhaps Queiroz may be wrong on this one. Hamed intercepts and restarts play smoothly and has a physicality to him that does not include fouling opponents.
Queiroz prefers Amr El Solia, who is not as rounded and is more a deep-lying playmaker. The 31-year-old is usually paired with Hamdi Fathi, both of who will be expected to start with Arsenal’s Mohamed El Neny. Popular Egyptian pundit Reda Abdel Aal says Fathi stopped being good as soon as he got married. We’ll leave that to your imagination.
How have they changed from the last AFCON? Out go starters Marwan Mohsen (forward), Tarek Hamed, former Aston Villa defender Ahmed ElMohamady (who has not been capped since that tournament), Walid Soliman and Mahmoud Alaa (centre back).
Keep a close eye on the team that reached the semis of the Arab Cup, for Queiroz’s penchant for consistency means he will most definitely deploy most of that team in Cameroon, while adding regulars such Salah, El Neny and Mostafa Mohamed.
The Man They Call Gallad
Mostafa is the player up front the Pharaohs have been looking for. It is arguable that since the retirement of Emad Moteab in 2015 and ex-Hull City man Amr Zaki, the north Africans have yet to have found a powerful centre forward in the mould of the 24-year-old, who has just joined Turkish giants Galatasaray for €4 million. So far he has scored six goals and provided one assist in 18 domestic competitions (league and cup).
His addition is key because Salah, as prolific as he is, could do with someone to play off him and allow the Liverpool star to create, draw opponents and of, course, score. (In many ways, Egypt could do well to mimic Salah, just how Senegal are deploying Mane these days.)
Premier League nostalgists will immediately reminded of Zaki. In Arabic, his kind of striker is called gallad, an executioner or killer. His business is goals, and he doesn’t faff about. Opponents will like to note that he also has a short temper.
Should Have Been There
He did not make the squad but here’s a name that you should know: Mohamed Magdy, who nobody calls Mohamed Magdy.
Everyone calls him Afsha, and nobody really knows why he’s called that. His mother was asked by local TV station ON Sport what she calls him. “Everyone calls him Afsha, and that’s what has made him famous. Why should I call him anything else?”
She’s right. Her son is the fulcrum of club powerhouse Al Ahly at the moment, being the mastermind of their back-to-back winning CAF Champions League performances. Not as mercurial as the great Mohamed Aboutreika, Afsha simply gets the job done – and well. Think of him as a Chelsea-period Cesc Fabregas.
Sadly, he won’t be there, and Queiroz is going with one of the oldest teams at this AFCON.
Egyptians largely expect their team to make, at least, the round of 16. This AFCON has room for four third-placed teams to advance from the groups and it will be a travesty if the Pharaohs do not book a spot.
You can’t read too much into how they qualified for the tournament, where – after a slow start – they got the job done in a group with Kenya, Togo and Comoros.
Salah, regardless will be expected to lead his side to glory in the AFCON after the start he’s had with Liverpool this season.
The Egypt captain has scored 16 goals and provided nine assists in the just 20 Premier League games this season.
He’s averaged a goal involvement every 71 minutes in the Premier League this season, which is his best rate in any top-flight league campaign across his career.
Inexperienced, and Not Much Else
Cliches are dangerous in international football, but for about a decade, one could safely copy-paste a template for the Sudanese national team before an AFCON.
Now, things have changed a bit. Whereas the Falcons of Jediane used to be made of pickings from the two local big guns, Al Merreikh and Al Hilal, this squad has ‘only’ 12 players from the two club giants, highlighting a marked shift from years when comfortably 90% of tournament squads could come from them.
There has been an effort to look further afield in the country and even abroad.
The exciting Mohammed Abdel Rahman ventured abroad and exploded in Algeria with CA Bordj, but even he returned home to Hilal. A player with a big reputation, Rahman is the first player in Sudanese history to be transferred for a million dollars or more. That was the move to Bordj.
The forward was crucial to their qualification, scoring the goal that ensured Sudan snuck the ticket from under South Africa’s noses.
He’d have loved to have teammates Saif Teiri and Athar El Tahir with him in Cameroon, but the two key players will sadly miss out due to injuries. El Tahir, in particular, would have given the side solidity in wide areas – he’s easily one of the best right-backs on the continent.
For the Flag
Sudan have now, many years later behind their continental counterparts, started looking at the diaspora. Yasin Hamed, playing in the Hungarian lower leagues, has tapped into his father’s side to get international football, seeing as his maternal Romanian side will definitely not select him. Cutely, he swears that choosing Sudan was a matter of the heart.
He was not selected.
Interestingly, Mohamed Amin, a promising defender from Swedish side Motala AIF, got a look in. He is one of a bulk of players in the squad who do not even have 15 caps to their name. Indeed, only six of the entire squad has 10 or more caps. Sudanese fans should be bracing themselves for an excursion in Cameroon.
That said, do look out for plenty youthful exuberance and fervour. Before training sessions, this team is known to belt out the national anthem, as they do before games as well.
At the Helm
Like all nations at the recent Qatar-hosted Arab Cup, Sudan were keen to use December’s competition as a dress rehearsal. It went very badly, losing all three games without scoring, and Hubert Velud was promptly sacked.
In his place a trio of coaches were put in charge – Burhan Tia, Mohsen Said and Mubarak Salman. Not long after the appointment, Salman pulled out, leaving Tia as the nominal head coach and Said as assistant.
A good goalkeeper is not something any African football watcher will ever ascribe to a Sudanese national team, but in Ali Abu Eshrein, they’ve got a gem. A late bloomer who started professional football at 27, he lives up to his name’s literal meaning of ‘father of twenty’.
He had his national team debut at 29. His organisation will be key to a decent show by the team from Africa’s horn, who qualified by finishing second in Group C, behind Ghana but above South Africa and São Tomé and Príncipe.
Also look out for Al-Jezoli Nouh, a 21-year-old forward from Merreikh with plenty of promise. Then there’s 23-year-old Jomaa Galag who just moved to Al Hilal but is yet to play. He’s spoken about using this AFCON to prove to his new team that he’s worth the hype.
From a Place of Hope
Thirteen years ago, Guinea-Bissau were in a very dark place. An impoverished state had no financial power to support football in the country.
The national team was non-existent due to a lack of fundamental support amidst an exile which led to almost three years without international football.
Fans and players of Guinea-Bissau could only dream of one day participating in the biggest football competition on the continent. On 4 June, 2016, that dream became a reality; former Liverpool player Toni Silva scored arguably the most celebrated goal in the history of Guinea-Bissau.
He netted against Zambia and turned their dreams into reality. After participating in their first AFCON in 2017, the commitment and investment from authorities improved. There was immediate reward as the Djurtus, which translates to Wild Dogs, qualified for the next edition.
Gradually, football in Guinea-Bissau is finding its feet. At first young players dreamt of travelling and changing nationalities to France or Portugal. But now the majority of the squad which will be in Cameroon play their football in the second division of France and Portugal.
Time for the Next Step
Guinea-Bissau have now qualified for a third successive AFCON, but the question remains as to whether they can make the knockout stages for the first time in their history. So far they have picked up two points in six games, scoring just two goals whilst conceding nine.
The feeling amongst the majority of the football lovers in the country is that they want to be more than just participants this time. History beckons, and the Djurtus will fancy their chances especially against Sudan.
In AFCON where finishing third could give you a chance of qualification to the next round, coach Baciro Cande will go all out when they face Sudan, who return to the AFCON after a 10-year absence.
On the other hand, Guinea-Bissau failed to score in their last four World Cup qualifiers and fans are growing frustrated with the lack of ability to find the back of the net. It isn’t the case of quality going forward as much as Cande’s side have been predominantly more defensive in their approach to most games.
Ones to Watch
Piqueti scored one of the best goals in the 2017 AFCON and will be expected to once again play a crucial role in the side alongside Alfa Semedo (Vitoria Guimaraes) and Moreto Cassama (Reims).
And then there’s Pelé. No, not that Pelé.
This is 30-year-old Judilson Mamadu Tuncara Gomes. A young prodigy at just 17, the Portuguese-born player made his league debut with Belenenses in 2009. Two years later, the midfielder played in the Portugal side that lost 3-2 in extra time to Brazil in the final of the U-20 World Cup in Colombia.
The hype around him led to a quick signing from AC Milan, but he was loaned out to three different clubs and failed to find his feet anywhere. Pelé was approached to consider his Bissau roots and, after doing so in 2017, it’s been a fine run for the AS Monaco man.
The Cande Man
He first coached the national team at 36, between 2003 and 2008, back when the small nation were one of Africa’s whipping boys. Now, 18 years later, Cande has engineered three straight AFCON qualifications.
But his pedigree among his people has never been in doubt, after once winning five consecutive league titles with Sporting Bissau. In total, Cande has won nine.
Can the Wild Dogs finally bark in Cameroon and reach the knockout round for the first time?