They know this is the last opportunity for them to join the best footballers from across the world in the biggest soccer event this year. For Super Eagles players, nothing, not even home support, can stop Nigeria from beating Ghana in Kumasi tomorrow to make the second leg of their Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifier a mere formality.
To some of the players, Qatar 2022 will be their first outing in the Copa du Mundo and it is not a chance they want to toy with.
Of the 25 players invited for this game, only 10 have been to the World Cup. These are Skipper Ahmed Musa, deputy captain, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Kelechi Iheanacho, Odion Ighalo, Francis Uzoho, Abdullahi Shehu, Daniel Akpeyi, Kenneth Omeruo and Oghenekaro Etebo. The rest see Qatar 2022 as their chance to announce their arrival in international football.
At a media briefing yesterday in Abuja, Coach Augustine Eguavoen, who will be facing Ghana for the third time in his coaching career, described the Black Stars as familiar foes, who are not so easy to beat, especially at home.
The Ghanaians played a mind game with the Eagles and did not release their squad list until Monday, but Eguavoen said it has no effect on his team.
Eguavoen said the Black Stars chose to hold on to their squad list for reasons best known to them, adding that it did not change the way the Eagles prepared for the game.
On the absence of Wilfred Ndidi, he said, “We wish him quick recovery because he is an important player for us, but his absence will not change anything. We have a couple of players who can play in that position.
“The philosophy will not change, the style of play will not change. What will change is only the personnel. I am not going to tell you who will take over that position until match day.”
He said a lot is at stake in the game, adding that the most important thing is to get the World Cup ticket and be in Qatar when the competition kicks off. “We are on the verge of qualifying for the World Cup. We have a lot of quality players to pick from for the game,” he said.
Eguavoen added: “We are privileged to be representing Nigeria out of more than 200 million people. We are grateful for that and we want to show that we deserve that honour.
“The squad, the officials and the federation are all working to ensure we qualify for the World Cup.
“With due respect to Ghana, they are no pushovers. We know they have a strong team, but we are hungrier about the ticket. We will go out there to fight and ensure that we do the job right.”
Eguavoen said the Eagles would try to make Nigerians happy, adding, however, that everybody in the stadium should support the Eagles even when things are not going the country’s way.
He said there is a possibility that Nigeria will win in Kumasi, pledging that the team will do whatever is needed to win the game despite the odds.
“The boys are sharp. We have trained twice and anybody who saw the sessions will agree that the players are ready to go. We will speak on the pitch and not at press conferences. On that day the boys will come out in their elements to do the job.”
On the jettisoning of the standby list to invite substitutes for injured stars, he explained that Bonnke was invited to replace injured Ndidi in line with the coaches’ plan for the game.
“If you look at the standby list, there is no defensive midfielder, so we had to invite Bonnke. I must say that Bonnke is someone we have been watching for a while and switching to him in this circumstance, to me, is not wrong.”
He debunked the allegation that the coaches chose Enyimba’s number two goalkeeper, John Noble, instead of the first choice Ojo Olorunleke, adding, “Noble is Enyimba’s number one goalkeeper. If you have watched Enyimba’s last five games, you would have noticed that Noble was in goal in all of them. I don’t know who is peddling the rumour that he is the reserve goalkeeper.
“I had to call my colleague, Finidi George and he informed me that Noble is not injured as speculated by some people.
“There are other goalkeepers we are watching. One is the Lobi Stars goalkeeper, Nwabali and Ojo, among others.
“After the World Cup in November, we will begin the Nations Cup qualifiers and there will be opportunities to try new players. But we cannot do it now, in so such a time.
“I will use one word to describe how we feel: Positive.”
Also speaking at the briefing, Assistant Team Captain, Troost-Ekong, assured me that he is fit and ready for the Ghana challenge.
“We need to make the Nigerian leg of the tie a home game with our supporters in the stadium to cheer us to victory.
“I am a bit excited about playing in Abuja because it is my first time here. Those that have played in Abuja have told us how the atmosphere is usually charged and good for the team. So, we want to see many fans in the stadium to urge us on.
“We want to use the World Cup ticket to assuage the feelings of our fans after our premature exit from the last Africa Cup of Nations. We are also aware of the rivalry with Ghana and we promise that we will keep Nigeria’s dominance in recent times rolling.”
On the anticipated underhand tactics the Ghanaians could employ to disorientate the Eagles, Troost-Ekong said the team has experienced players, who have played under different conditions, adding that victory would be decided on the pitch by the players and not by fans.
“It will just be about getting everybody to feel at ease and get on with the game. It will be about a positive mindset, ensure we don’t get carried away and lose focus,” he said.
On playing with a new goalkeeper following the absence of Maduka Okoye, he said the players are used to the three shot-stoppers in camp, saying, “Francis Uzoho was the first-choice goalkeeper at the World Cup and we played with him, while at the Egypt 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, we played with Akpeyi. So, anybody picked for the game will be stepping into familiar grounds.
“We have a good squad and I think we will also miss Wilfred and Alex, but the players that will step in for them will give 100 per cent and show why they should be playing for Nigeria. I am sure everybody is equal to the challenge.”
To team captain, Ahmed Musa, this is a chance to repay Nigerians for the premature exit from the Nations Cup in Cameroun. Although he acknowledged that Ghana would not be an easy nut to crack, Musa said the players know that going to the World Cup is the biggest stage they can exhibit their talents, adding that they are united in the quest to grab the ticket.
Musa said: “Many people say that we have a young team, but what they don’t realise is that these players play for big teams and in big tournaments in Europe. So, age is not an issue here. I played against Ghana once in 2010 and I know how tough they are.
“Our aim is to win at the end of 90 minutes and settle our debts to our fans after the AFCON failure.”
On the new players in camp, especially Akinkumi Amao and Lookman, Musa said everybody is ready, adding that the older players have taught the new ones what it entails to play for Nigeria.
On the injury-forced absence of midfielder Ndidi and goalkeeper Okoye, Musa said the team has enough substitutes to fill in for the absentees, adding that the coaches have been working on a strategy that will ensure nobody is missed in-game.
Musa dismissed the notion that Nigeria could miss out on the World Cup by losing to Ghana, adding that since he started playing for the country, the Eagles have always qualified for the competition.
He added: “I have never played in Ghana, but I have played a friendly against them. People have been saying that they have never lost a game in Kumasi, but that was what they said about the Benin Republic and Porto Novo, but we went there to beat them. We are going to Kumasi to break that jinx.”
The Super Eagles will leave for Kumasi this morning aboard a chartered Air Peace flight, and return with the same aircraft immediately after the match.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has also confirmed that the Eagles’ players and officials will stay at the Golden Tulip, the best hotel facility in Kumasi, for the match.(The Guardian)
•PHOTO: Super Eagles