By Victor Okoye
Table-toppers, Nigeria will come into their second group game of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) against Sudan as clear favourites and they are expected to win by a respectable margin.
The game is coming after their memorable defeat of the Pharaohs of Egypt in the opening match of Group D of the 33rd AFCON in Cameroon.
Following a goalless draw in their opening match against Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday ( a result with major implications for the Super Eagles), Sudan have managed just one win in their last 14 Africa Cup of Nations games, drawing six and losing seven, dating back to the 1972 edition.
The goalless draw for both teams means Nigeria sit top of Group D and are now the favourites in the race to win the group which could prove crucial in the later stages.
Guinea-Bissau were favourites by a small margin to beat Sudan, and they should have won but for some poor finishing.
Guinea-Bissau drew a game they should have won 2-0, while Sudan were run ragged by Guinea-Bissau, proving that neither of these teams stand a chance against Nigeria.
Nigeria and Sudan are meeting for the third time at the AFCON, but it’s their first encounter at the tournament in 46 years.
Sudan won the first match 4-0 in the 1963 group phase, while Nigeria won the second 1-0 in 1976.
Apart from their 4-0 win over the Eagles in 1963 in Accra, the Falcons’ 1-0 defeat of Nigeria in an AFCON qualifier in Khartoum in October 2014 was one of the principal reasons for the absence of the green-and-white in the 30th finals in Equatorial Guinea seven years ago.
However, so much has changed in 59 years and the Eagles are quietly confident of victory over the Sudanese when both teams tango at the 30,000 capacity venue in northern Cameroon on Saturday.
Having already won the most difficult game in the group, the Super Eagles are now on course to finish Group D as the first-placed team, most likely with nine points.
If they achieve that, it would be the first time Nigeria has won an AFCON group since 2006.
It would also be their first nine-point haul since 2006 and current interim coach, Augustine Eguavoen was the man who led them to these milestones.
This was when his wards steamrolled Ghana, Zimbabwe and Senegal in Egypt 16 years ago.
On Thursday, Eguavoen however waved aside the record of his being the only Nigeria coach to have led the Super Eagles to win all three group phase matches at the AFCON.
“I am focused on winning against Sudan for now; I don’t want to think about any record or how we go about our third match. Sudan is in focus now and we have to deal with that, squarely,” he said.
Watching Guinea-Bissau and Sudan play on Tuesday would have renewed the confidence of the Nigerian team in the possibility of winning all three group games.
The Sudanese will most likely sit back and defend in hopes of another goalless draw but it is unlikely that Nigeria will be as wasteful as Guinea-Bissau were.
Speaking of Guinea-Bissau, they should provide Nigeria with a tougher encounter than Sudan (and perhaps even Egypt) depending on the circumstances surrounding the game.
It would be the last game of the group stages with Nigeria already guaranteed qualification if they beat Sudan.
They may not play with the same intensity as Guinea-Bissau, who would most likely be playing for a chance to stay in the tournament.
But based on the display against Sudan, Nigeria should still have enough to see off Guinea-Bissau even if Eguavoen treats it as an opportunity to give minutes to some fringe players.
Several members of the Super Eagles squad who spoke to NAN after their recovery training session at the Stade Roumdé Adjia in Garoua on Wednesday, expressed confidence in the team’s ability to defeat Sudan.
They, however, stressed on the need to stay focused and remain humble throughout the tournament, adding that there would be no room for complacency in the game.
Leicester City forward, Kelechi Iheanacho, said the team would sustain the tempo from the Egypt game and keep on giving nothing but the best.
“We will do our best and keep doing the same thing we have been doing and, by God’s grace, we will win our games.”
Similarly, Orlando Pirates’ Olisa Ndah said he was looking forward to a good game against Sudan.
He added that the team’s goal is to win all their group games to ensure the Super Eagles top the group.
“We have to win all the games but we are taking each game one step at a time. So, to win the next game is our target for now,” Ndah said.
Kenneth Omeruo of CD Leganes in Spain said the team could not afford to be complacent at this time, adding that the next game must also be taken seriously.
“We have to take the match seriously. The win over Egypt was a good start for us, but we shouldn’t lose focus and think the next game will be easy. So, we have to take the game seriously and try to win it so that we can be sure of qualifying for the next round,” Omeruo said.
Goalkeeper Maduka Okoye was also confident that the Super Eagles could beat every team in the tournament.
“We are Nigeria and we are strong enough to beat everybody. I think the game against Sudan is going to be a more physical game. But, also, in this squad we have enough physical qualities. I am sure we can also get the job done against Sudan,” Okoye said.
On his part, William Troost-Ekong who captained the team during Tuesday’s match said he was delighted that the team kept a clean sheet against Egypt.
“We had a good outing in the first game and the boys played well. Great determination and, most importantly, we got the result. Of course, I want to get clean sheets in every game. Having said that, I don’t think we should believe in the hype going into the game against Sudan. Every game for us is going to be a big game.
“We are going to approach it the same way we did against the Egyptians. Game by game we are going to go further. So, we will keep cool and stay humble as we’ve got all it takes to get over the Sudanese,” Troost-Ekong said.
After the Super Eagles’ encounter with Sudan on Saturday, the team will tackle Guinea Bissau on Jan. 19 in their last Group D game.