The odds are stacked against the Super Eagles who aim to end their four-game winless streak when they face Benin Republic at the Stade Charles de Gaulle in Porto Novo on Saturday (today) in a 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, Saturday.
The Eagles lead Group L of the qualifiers with eight points, after home victories against Benin and Lesotho and the doubleheader stalemate versus Sierra Leone last November.
Benin are second on seven points, while third-place Sierra Leone have three points. Lesotho occupy bottom place with two points.
Two teams will qualify from the group, with a draw today in Porto Novo enough to see the Nigerians book their spot in the finals in Cameroon next year.
But they have a herculean task getting a result against their hosts, who have not lost a game on home soil in eight years.
Despite Eagles’ superior head-to-head record over Benin, Gernot Rohr admits the game will be a tough one for his team but believes a win could “restore a winning mentality” to the squad ahead of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in June.
The Eagles are yet to lose to their next-door neighbours in 14 games at senior level.
“Benin have not lost a match for eight years at home, the last time they lost was in 2013 so you can imagine that we want to be the first team to win there,” Rohr said ahead of the game.
“We want to finish our qualification on a positive note. The two matches against Benin and Lesotho are very important. We are keen to restore a winning mentality to the group ahead of very crucial games we have.
“It will not be easy, they have a very good defence and they were quarter-finalists in the last AFCON. They eliminated Morocco.
“It is important that we earn victories in the upcoming matches so that we get into our paces for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
“They will be tough games to come and we will be raring to go. Of course, we know that Benin was difficult to beat in our last game in Uyo and we need at least a point against them to qualify for next year’s AFCON.”
The Eagles are not bad travelers, and have been unbeaten in their last 11 away games. They last lost an away game against Egypt in Alexandria on March 6, 2016.
However, Group L’s early kick-off tie between Lesotho and Sierra Leone in Maseru could ensure Nigeria qualify without having to kick a ball; that is if the tie ends in a draw.
But captain Ahmed Musa says their focus is on claiming maximum points irrespective of the group’s other result.
“Our focus is to get the three points in Porto Novo and wrap up the qualification. Three points will get us to Cameroon no matter what anyone plays, and that is what we are determined to get,” Musa said.
Former Eagles media officer, Toyin Ibitoye, also warned the Eagles to be cautious against the Squirrels.
“When we played Benin in Uyo, it was a difficult game; they were a hard nut to crack,” Ibitoye told Saturday PUNCH.
“Benin were the last team to beat the reigning African champions Algeria 1-0 in Porto Novo in 2013. They have a lot of history and confidence going into this game.
“But on our part, the year 2020 was not a great year for the Eagles as they did not win any game (drew three and lost one) so we are trying to build again.”
Rohr has the full complement of his squad apart from injured Bordeaux winger Samuel Kalu, Nantes winger Moses Simon and Leganes centre-back Kenneth Omeruo, the duo having been held back by their clubs due to COVID-19 concerns.
In-form Almeria striker Sadiq Umar, who was hoping to make his senior debut, was also barred from the tie by his Spanish Segunda club.
But Rohr has a smile on his face following the return of midfielder Wilfred Ndidi and the fantastic form of Kelechi Iheanancho, who has notched nine goals in same number of matches for EPL side Leicester City.
Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, joint-top scorer in the qualifiers with four goals alongside Burundi’s Saidi Ntibazonkiza, Louis Mafouta (CAR) and South Africa’s Percy Tau is back to the side after he copped an injury in the 4-4 draw against the Leone Stars four months ago.
Sparta Rotterdam’s safe hands Maduka Okoye, who has four clean sheets this term, would start ahead of the returning Apoel Nicosia goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, who didn’t feature for the Eagles in their last four games, while Enyimba keeper John Noble gets his first call-up.
Home-based duo Adekunle Adeleke and fast-paced winger Anayo Iwuala also made the squad, following the withdrawals of some Europe-based stars.
But captain Musa’s inclusion, who hasn’t played club football for half a year, sparked reactions in the media and the football-crazy populace, while frayed nerves were calmed following the inclusion of towering Genk striker Paul Onuachu, who Rohr had earlier placed on standby.
Despite Rohr’s packed squad, Squirrels’ French coach Michel Dussuyer believes his side can end the Eagles impressive away record.
“We have respect for Nigeria but we also have our assets,” Dussuyer told CAFOnline.
“We will approach the game with a lot of seriousness and determination. We know what we have to do. On Saturday (today), our ambition is to win. It will not be an easy task but we have hope.”
The Squirrels also boast of four clean sheets in their last five games and will be banking on their resolute defence to upstage the Eagles.
In the earlier fixture between both teams, in November 2019, the Squirrels shocked the Eagles with a goal inside the first five minutes at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo, before goals from Victor Osimhen from the penalty spot and a close-range strike from Samuel Kalu earned the Eagles all the points at stake.
The Squirrels, had their last training session at the Stade Charles de Gaulle on Thursday, with Dussuyer, 61, a former French footballer and well-travelled coach, banking on the power of 36-year-old forward Michael Pote, the defensive competence of David Kiki, Yohan Roche, Khaled Adenon and Cedric Hountondji, the midfield savvy of Anaane Tidjane, Jordan Adeoti and Rodrigue Kossi and the guile of Steve Mounie, Jacques Bessan and Jerome Bonou.
Goalkeepers Saturnin Allagbe and Fabien Farnolle will contend for the number one spot. Allagbe was impressive at the AFCON in Egypt.
A win for Benin on Saturday will secure their AFCON qualification for only the fifth time, after featuring at the 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2019 editions.
Tiny Comoros Islands are the surprise package of the qualifiers after sealing a spot at the competition for the first time with a goalless draw against Togo at home on Thursday to maintain their unbeaten record in the qualifiers.
The result advanced the Comoros to nine points from five matches, guaranteeing them a top-two finish in Group G, a fairytale achievement for the small island nation.
They are second behind Egypt, who have nine points, after their 1-1 draw with Kenya in Nairobi.
Hosts Cameroon, holders Algeria, Ghana, Gabon, Gambia, Morocco, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Equatorial and Tunisia are the other teams that have qualified for the continental football fiesta.