By Nurudeen Obalola:
The Super Eagles are condemned to defeat Sudan tonight in Abuja as any other outcome would see the African champions deprived of the opportunity to defend the Africa Cup of Nations title they won so impressively in South Africa last year.
As things stand, the Eagles are on the brink, and a loss or draw would push them over the edge into elimination.
After three winnable matches, Stephen Keshi’s team is stuck at the bottom of Group A of the AFCON 2015 qualifiers with just one point following two defeats and one draw.
The Eagles opened their campaign with a 3-2 home loss to Congo, which was partly blamed on the Nigeria Football Federation leadership crisis. But the situation did not improve much in their next match as they laboured to a goalless result against South Africa in Cape Town in their second game.
Even after the not-so-impressive performances and results in their first two matches, the Eagles were still huge favourites to beat Sudan in Khartoum on Saturday to get their qualifying campaign back on track.
After all Sudan had lost their two previous games, one home and one away, and had not scored a single goal. The East Africans were there for the taking; they had not beaten Nigeria in 51 years.
The only problem was the Eagles did not take them. Keshi and his boys outdid themselves and hit a new low when they put up a horrible performance in Khartoum and got the result their shocking display deserved. They lost to lowly Sudan and left themselves with a slippery mountain to climb.
Now, the minimum requirement for the Eagles to even have a sniff of qualifying for Maroc 2015 is to win their three remaining matches in the series, starting with tonight’s clash with Sudan.
Ordinarily, the Eagles would be odds-on favourites to batter Sudan in Abuja, but recent results call for caution.
Sudan have found out that the Eagles have not been too ‘super’ lately and the visitors are brimming with confidence. Conversely, Nigeria’s confidence is shot; the once swashbuckling African champions have been reduced to a bag of nerves. They have lost the fear factor; they are vulnerable.
While Sudan boss Mohamed Abdalla is boasting that his team will be looking to win in Abuja, his Nigerian counterpart is busy looking to deflect blame from himself and alleging sabotage, making the Eagles camp a toxic place full of distrust.
But if any team can dig themselves out of a canyon, it has to be the Eagles, although this feels more like a bottomless pit. They were written off after their first two matches at AFCON 2014 following uninspiring draws, but they struggled into the quarter-finals and steamrollered their way to the title with some superb showings.
If Keshi and the team’s off-form leaders – Mikel Obi, Emmanuel Emenike, Ogenyi Onazi, Ahmed Musa and Elderson Echiejile – can somehow find their best form, Sudan should be no match for them.
And a win in Abuja, where the gates have been thrown open free of charge to attract skeptical Nigerians, could just breathe enough life into the campaign to make the Eagles sneak through to Morocco, even if as the best third-placed side in all the groups.
But they must start with a win against Sudan, in spite of everything: the invitation of players who have added no value to the squad like Aaron Samuel, Sunday Emmanuel and Raheem Lawal; the exclusion of in-form game changers like Ike Uche and Obafemi Martins, and Keshi’s obvious unease about his contract situation.
NIGERIA RECENT FORM: LLDL
SUDAN RECENT FORM: LLLW
REFEREE: NEANT ALIOUM (CAMEROON)
VENUE: ABUJA NATIONAL STADIUM
KEY STAT: The Super Eagles have secured just one win in 11 games which was a 1-0 win against Bosnia Herzegovina at the FIFA World Cup.
EXPERT VERDICT: After starting the qualifiers on a poor note, picking just one point in three games, the Eagles will hope to rescue their campaign with a must win game against Sudan today and hope South Africa defeat Congo to stand any chance of making it to next year’s AFCON.
RECOMMENDATION: NIGERIA 3-0 SUDAN