It could have been better and it could have been worse.
That ought to be Nigeria’s reaction to the qualifying draw to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations as the Super Eagles find themselves pooled in Group G alongside Egypt, Tanzania and Chad.
Essentially, Nigeria need to win the group to guarantee progression to the continental showpiece—now in Gabon—in just under two years’ time.
The two-best second-placed teams also progress, but realistically, with 13 groups, that represents very much a ‘back door’ into the tournament. Considering too that the 2013 champions avoided some of the genuine minnows of the qualifying stage, it’s more likely that the points will be evenly spread in Group G, for example, than in, say, Group M, where Cameroon and South Africa will both be looking to take a maximum 12 points from their double-headers with the Gambia and Mauritania.
At first glance, it’s a tricky selection.
Indeed, no other group can boast of more than one Afcon victory in the last decade; Nigeria’s group not only have two sides with a recent triumph under their belt, but between them, the Super Eagles and the Pharaohs have won four of the last six tournaments.
A draw against Egypt means a trip to North Africa—never an easy prospect—and also a meeting with a side desperate to return to their former glory.
The Pharaohs, like the Super Eagles, recently endured the ignominy of failing to qualify for the Nations Cup despite being the reigning African champions.
However, while for Nigeria, the embarrassment will hopefully only extend to missing one tournament—2015—Egypt, who won three in a row between 2006 and 2010—haven’t returned since. They have been absent for the last trio of Afcons, and also failed—heartbreakingly—to qualify for the 2014 World Cup after they were tonked by Ghana in Kumasi.
The great iconic figure of that side, and that cycle, Mohamed Abou Trika, has left the scene, and the North African giants are still to truly find their post-glittering generation cycle.
But there is potential aplenty.
In Fiorentina’s on loan Chelsea forward Mohamed Salah, they boast one of Africa’s pre-eminent attacking threats.
In Serie A, Salah has thrived, scoring four goals in three Serie A starts and contributing one assist. He put Juventus to the sword in the Italian Cup—finding the net twice in an hour—and will be a major area of concern for Stephen Keshi, Daniel Amokachi or whoever else is coaching the Super Eagles.
It’s no secret that the full-back berths are areas of concern and confusion moving forward for the national side, and whoever takes the left-back role, be it Elderson Echiejile, Juwon Oshaniwa or Chima Akas, will have their work cut out.
Mohamed El-Nenny and Ahmed Hamoudi of Basel, as well as Ibrahim Trezeguet of Al Ahly are talented midfielders, while, in Emad Moteab, Mohamed Nagieb, Ahmed Fathy and Hull City’s Ahmed Elmohamady, the side is not lacking in experience.
Nigeria and Egypt meet—first in West Africa, then in Cairo—in the middle pair of fixtures, the head-to-head contests, twice in a week—this arrangement is likely to be a delight for those who like tense, cagey contests, but it could go either way for the Super Eagles.
This is not a vintage Pharaohs generation, but anyone boldly prophesising that Nigeria will boldly outclass their illustrious rivals is forgetting that this isn’t a vintage Super Eagles generation either.
Both Chad and Tanzania are ostensibly there to make up the numbers, but both may be capable of posing problems and will surely fancy their chances of making a name for themselves against two of the fallen giants of the African game.
Chad, who will be Nigeria’s initial test, were eliminated in the first round of qualification for the 2015 Afcon. However, it’s perhaps worth noting that they were one of only two ‘minnows’ to have fallen at this hurdle on away goals rather than lose outright.
It’s also worth noting that they actually beat Malawi 3-1 in N’Djamena, having taken a 3-0 lead inside 40 minutes before the Flames scored a late away goal that ultimately saw them advance.
This is the same Malawi side that beat both Mali and Ethiopia in qualifying and who would have progressed to the Afcon had they scored one goal in Addis Ababa.
That penultimate clash in the Chadian capital will be no walkover.
Finally, Tanzania, who haven’t qualified for the Afcon since 1980. They may be three-time CECAFA Cup champions, but their smattering of talent—and I’m talking about TP Mazembe forwards Tom Ulimwengu and Mbwana Samata—shouldn’t be enough to trouble the Super Eagles.
Salah | Anyone else would do…
Looking over to poor Cape Verde—who drew Morocco, or Cameroon—who find themselves pooled with South Africa, remind Nigeria of how things could have been much worse.
They could definitely have been better, and improvement is required from the side who lost to Uganda in Uyo if the Super Eagles are to return to the continental high table.
Minds must be sharpened for the tests that lie in wait if Nigeria are to be invited to the party, let alone reclaim their crown.