The die is cast – the much expected back-to-back 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers between Nigeria and Egypt are here. Completesportsnigeria.com's IZUCHUKWU OKOSI examines five key battles that could shape the outcome of both the first leg in Kaduna and the second leg in Alexandria.
AHMED 'Koka' HASSAN VS GODFREY OBOABONA
Super Eagles central defender Godfrey Oboabona will have a torrid time making sure he polices Sporting Braga striker, Ahmed 'Koka' Hassan effectively.
The Egyptian forward who is likely to play as the 'number 9' for the Pharaohs against the Eagles has taken the Portuguese top flight by storm this season. Currently, he has scored nine goals in 17 league matches, starting 11 of them.
Koka's take-ons are outstanding and Oboabona's fitness will have to be top notch to check his menacing pace.
Oboabona will do his job in these crucial games without the support of his regular partner, Kenneth Omeruo, who misses out through injury.
2013 AFCON winning defender, Oboabona, has completed the most passes in the Turkish top flight this season with 851 attempts with an accuracy of 83%.
However more reassuring is his statistics in his tackling; 34 tackles won this season for Caykur Rizespor,
Nigerian football fans may be forgiven to believe that the former Sunshine Stars man will deal with the threat of the Egyptian.
Oboabona has made 63 interceptions, 91 clearances and 20 blocks for his club so far this season before joining his international teammates for the qualifying matches.
The defender makes an average of seven defensive key actions per game and he has won 52% of his duels with strikers in Turkey.
This is a battle in prospect which could either result in a back-breaking goal(s) or produce outstanding defensive display.
Hopefully, the pendulum swings in Oboabona and Nigeria's favour.
MOHAMED ELNENY VS ALEX IWOBI
The battle between Nigeria and England over an international allegiance of Arsenal youngster, Alex Iwobi, has finally been won by the country of his father – Nigeria.
Iwobi will likely make his competitive debut this weekend/next week and face his teammate and Egyptian midfielder, Mohamed Elneny, in the 2017 African Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Former Basel star, Elneny, spoke of the likely confrontation in Kaduna and Alexandria between him and Iwobi.
“I told him (Iwobi) that it will be hard for Nigeria to beat Egypt,” Elneny revealed while speaking with Arab news channel, MBC.
The prediction for most Nigerian fans will naturally be that Iwobi is going to be handed a cameo appearance, but there could be another plan up the sleeves of Samson Siasia.
Handing Iwobi more than a few minutes on Friday and Tuesday, fitness permitting, will likely send a strong signal to other Anglo-Nigerian players who might be in dilemma over which country to represent in international football.
If this projection comes to fruition, both players will be playing against each other this time rather than playing for same team. The fact that they are club mates will be one subplot fans will be pleased to watch out keenly.
Elneny is a box-to-box midfielder who tracks the run of opposition midfielders and forwards brilliantly.
The Egyptian has completed 94 passes in the Premier League in three games with an accuracy of 88%, of which 71% were forward passes.
His average pass length is 16m and his average duels won is 36%. His average defensive actions per game stand at five.
Iwobi's passing ability and take-ons will be key if he gets to play. The youngster's average duels won is just 23%, an area Elneny is understandably superior, but the Nigerian's ability to thread good passes could be where he comes out the winner of the battle.
The midfielder who has played six Premier League games and twice in the Champions League this season has 80% pass accuracy and 67% shot accuracy in the current league.
MOHAMED SALAH VS ELDERSON ECHIEJILE
One of the most interesting battles in the back-to-back qualifiers will be that between Super Eagles left-back, Elderson Echiejile and Egypt's Mohamed Salah.
Salah has scored 24 goals in 40 international games for Egypt. This season (2015/2016), the left-footed forward who plays from the right side of attack (and opposing teams' left side) and tends to cut inside to devastating effect, has netted 11 times for AS Roma. He also has six assists for the Giallorossi.
Salah has created 45 chances and four assists. The Pharaoh has completed 715 passes this season with a pass accuracy of 84%, of which 53% were forward passes.
Elderson Echiejile who has won 25 tackles this season for AS Monaco with a success rate of 42% is likely to face Salah despite reporting late to the Eagles camp and will have a tough time containing the Egyptian star man.
Echiejile has made 37 interceptions, 55 clearances and five blocks for the Monaco club this season.
The Nigerian's statistics are by all intents and purposes promising, but he will do well not to drift forward too often in a bid to support the attack due to the searing pace of Salah who would find joy down the channel.
JOHN MIKEL OBI VS AMR WARDA
Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi is one of Nigeria's most influential players.
Egypt coach, Hector Cuper and his lieutenants surely know that Mikel's experience and leadership qualities will be brought to bear in the two legs..
One Egyptian player who could cross path with Mikel in the midfield on Friday in Kaduna and Alexandria on Tuesday is Panetolikos FC of Greece attacking midfielder, Amr Warda.
Warda only made his debut for the Pharaohs in a friendly match against Zambia in Abu Dhabi on October 11, 2015.
The Egyptian played 24 games in the Greek Premier League in the 2015/2016 season and scored four goals, providing three assists.
The attacking midfielder was in the Egypt squad that played an international friendly against Zambia (his debut), and then the away and home 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Chad on November 14 and 17, 2015, where he played for eight and 15 minutes respectively.
Warda may be new in the Egyptian national team setup, but he has demonstrated enough capabilities to earn the trust of his national team boss.
Warda is a player that likes to drift inward from the right flank and his lateral movement is deceptive and capable of causing the Eagles midfield plenty problems.
Meanwhile, Mikel has in recent games for Chelsea shown that his days under Jose Mourinho where he restricted to playing just in front of the defence is gone. He now covers a larger path of the field. This is where he steps in and should use his experience to rescue the Eagles from danger.
The Eagles star makes three at average defensive actions per game and has won 39% of his midfield duels in the Barclays Premier League this season.
One area Mikel needs to beware of in his midfield battles against Egypt is his temperament. Warda could be the man whom he tango with regularly in 90 minutes.
The Chelsea star who has been yellow-carded 36 times and handed one straight red card since he moved to the London side in the 2006/2007 season, tends to let his frustrations take the better part of him when results don't go his team's way.
ODION IGHALO VS RAMY RABIA/AHMED HEGAZY
Odion Ighalo scored Nigeria's first goal in the race for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Nigeria's 2-0 win against Chad on June 13, 2015 interestingly at the Ahmedu Bello Stadium, Kaduna, where Friday's game will hold.
Al Ahly defender, Ramy Rabia was in Egypt's team that played tune-up games against Burkana Faso, Libya and Jordan between January 27 2016 to February 27, 2016 and Zambia in 2015.
The two-time Egyptian Premier League winner scored Egypt's first goal in their 2017 AFCON qualifier against Tanzania – a 3-0 win at the Borg El Arab Stadium, Alexandria a day after Nigeria's win against Chad.
Rabia is a defender strong in the tackles and with good aerial prowess.
The 22 year-old Rabia could be the defender Hector Cuper elects to deploy to mark Ighalo on Friday.
Cuper who reportedly has acquired a video compilation of the Super Eagles squad players may also pick Ahmed Hegazy for the job of marking Ighalo who is in fine form at the moment, with 14 goals scored in 30 Premier League games for Watford.
Hegazy has captained the Pharaohs in couple of AFCON and World Cup qualifiers and is widely known as the 'Nesta of the Pyramids'.
The defender was given this nickname as his playing style somewhat resembles that of Italian legend Alessandro Nesta; combative and a good tackler of the ball.
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