Neither Nigeria nor South Africa will take anything for granted when they lock horns in their Group E Nations Cup qualifier at the iconic Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo this weekend. The Super Eagles have missed the last two editions of the continental showpiece, and will realise the value of a strong start in order to reach Cameroon in 2019.
Gernot Rohr continues to have an unbeaten start to his tenure as Super Eagles boss, but while the recent 3-0 friendly victory over Togo puts Nigeria in a good frame of mind ahead of Saturday’s showdown, the German coach will be aware that Bafana Bafana are enjoying a renaissance of their own.
For South Africa, Stuart Baxter has returned to the job he held between 2004 and 2005, and he ought to have the quality as his disposal to build on Shakes Mashaba’s troubled reign.
Bafana denied Nigeria a place in the 2015 AFCON tournament in Equatorial Guinea thanks to a 2-2 draw at the same Uyo venue but with the visitors missing several key players due to injury, the Eagles have the opportunity to make amends.
The desire for revenge could spur the Super Eagles on, but Rohr will seek to avoid complacency, as Baxter has already guided Bafana to a victory over Nigeria-back in November 2004-and will be looking to ride the wave of positivity following his appointment.
In terms of the quality of the two sides, Nigeria should be confident that they have the edge.
In defence, Rohr will likely stick with Kenneth Omeruo, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun and Elderson Echiejile-all regulars under his watch. Ahead of them, the energetic trio of Ogenyi Onazi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi appear set to start in midfield.
They offer excellent work rate and dynamism, and will force their opposite numbers to work extra hard in order to get a foothold in the match.
Etebo’s presence could be particularly crucial, with his ability to defend and link midfield to attack. The Feirense man contributed a fine assist for Kelechi Iheanacho in the 3-0 win against Togo and he’ll definitely be in the thick of things again.
The trio of Ahmed Musa, Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi might have been starved of game time at their respective clubs in recent months, but their performance against the Sparrow Hawks has fuelled optimism, and reaffirmed the quality of the firepower Nigeria has at its disposal.
In midfield, marshals Andile Jali and Bongani Zungu will be charged with disrupting Nigeria’s trio, and it will be fascinating to see how Kermit Erasmus fares if given the opportunity, with the Stade Rennais attacker improving on loan at Lens towards the end of the campaign.
Even considering the visitors’ qualities, Nigerians are the favourites on paper, but South Africa are unbeaten in their last three games against the Super Eagles and how Baxter would love to kick off his reign by taking bragging rights from Bafana’s continental rivals.