By Taofeek Lawal
The Super Eagles of Nigeria have been boxed into a tight corner following their 2-3 home loss to the Red Devils of Congo in the opening game of the qualifiers for next year edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) to be hosted by Morocco. Before their home loss at the UJ Esuene Calabar last Saturday which shocked many and even the players and their coaches, the belief was that the Eagles as the champions of the continent would have a roller coaster ride in a group that has football “minnows” like South Africa, Sudan and Congo Brazzaville who are late entrant after the Rwandans goofed. The Super Eagles with their current position in group A are now at sitting the edge of a cliff hanger and any mistake made in today’s game against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa may see them losing the chance to defend their title next January in Morocco. Who could have thought that the Stephen Keshi’s tutored boys would be at this dead end when other football power houses in the continent are having edges over their opponents?
It is no gainsaying to say the fact that the Super Eagles have learnt greatly from their Calabar show of shame and to redeem their image before football crazy Nigerian fans, they have to play the game of their lives in Cape Town today not to draw but to win with the mindset that the South Africans will put their all into this match to consolidate their lead in the group following their 3-0 away bashing of Sudan in Omdurman last Friday. This is however not the time for the Eagles to brood over their opening game loss but the time to bring their never-say-die Nigerian spirit to bear in Cape Town in today’s crucial game after all Nigeria have never lost any competitive game to South Africa. The Eagles (as most of them are foreign based) can take a cue from their home-based counterparts that defeated the Mandela boys during the Championship of African Nations (CHAN) cup hosted by South Africa in January this year.
On paper, the South Africa national team did not possess the wherewithal to stop the Eagles from qualifying to defend their title but that has come to naught with the ways their wings are clipped in Calabar by the Congolese team. As at the last count, the two countries have met nine times with Nigeria recording seven victories, South Africa recorded only one victory with one draw. The Eagles have flown past the Bafana Bafana at three World Cup qualifiers, two AFCON qualifiers, one at the CHAN and one friendly victory where the Eagles were handed the Mandela Challenge trophy. The South recorded their only victory way back in 2004 winning the Nelson Mandela Invitational trophy while the only draw was a World Cup qualifier in 1993. Like the Congolese team, the South Africans may not be bothered about statistics as their coach; Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba has declared a total war against Keshi and his boys in today’s crucial encounter. Mashaba is right; he knows the implication of having upper hand against Nigeria to ease his country’s qualification to next year tournament in Morocco after their convincing victory over Sudan. “As far as I am concerned, we will play Nigeria on Wednesday (today) and we are ready to go to battle. It is a big one and I have told my boys to up their game. The 3-0 win was critical but now we need to be even more clinical if we are to follow up our win on Friday. It won’t be a technical match; they are going to be fighting as well. We all know what Nigerians can do. We should be in a position to get something out of the game, “he said. Mashaba will be relying on the firepower of Sibusiso Vilakazi who came from the bench to score a goal and provided an assist that nailed the Sudanese coffins. According to Mashaba who is in his second stint as Bafana Bafana coach, Vilakazi’s introduction was a tactical winning move that worked for him in Khartoum and will repeat same against Nigeria. “In modern football, that is what we call a tactical move. You don’t throw all your good players from the word go. You throw them from the bench when the opposition is tiring. All three subs that came on paid dividends. It was like they were saying; we want to show the coach that we don’t belong to the bench,” the coach stated.
With this “warning” from Mashaba, it would be incumbent on Keshi and his boys to approach today’s game like a war and split the last blood in their vein to defend their country and restore football pride on the continent. Nigerian goalkeeper Austin Ejide should now find his voice and talk to his defenders while each member of the team should jettison individual play else they fail to defend their title for the first time in 18 years ago coincidentally in South Africa when General Sani Abacha and former President Nelson Mandela both of blessed memory engaged in a diplomatic row.