Head Coach of the Nigeria National Team, Jose Peseiro, threaded into the unknown when he accepted the job just under two years ago. A different culture, language, style of play and now his first venture into the Africa Cup of Nations.
Poignantly, he had promised to deliver the AFCON title in his first statement as Super Eagles boss. It displayed a refreshing confidence that otherwise urged caution given the team had just devastatingly missed out on FIFA World Cup qualification.
Having lost four of his first six matches at the helm, the Portuguese was off on the wrong foot with Super Eagles fans. Nevertheless, they qualified for AFCON 2023 with a game to spare thanks to Kelechi Iheanacho’s added-time winner against Sierra Leone.
On paper, they were unbeaten in seven games from eight in 2023 but mostly had Jekyll and Hyde performances compounded by defensive lapses. A lack of control in most games has seen them struggle to build consistency and opponents will always be gifted with a chance to score.
Can Peseiro deliver on his AFCON promise?
The Super Eagles begin their Group A campaign on 14 January against Equatorial Guinea before facing Ivory Coast and then Guinea-Bissau in a tricky Group A. Aside from the obvious threat of the hosts, they must be wary of the Equatoguineans who placed higher than Nigeria with a quarter-final finish at the last AFCON.
The three-time African champions also met Guinea-Bissau in the qualifiers where they both won their away tie 1-0, although Nigeria were 2-nil winners when they met in the group stage of AFCON 2021.
It is clear that the Super Eagles have a tough task on their hands to better the Round of 16 finish in Cameroon, considering their teething problems coming into this edition.
Perhaps, a huge motivating factor will be the announcement of CAF’s highest-ever prize money of $7 million for the champions following a 40% increase. The AFCON 2023 runners-up will now get $4 million, $2.5 million for the semi-finalists and $1.3 million for the four quarter-finalists.
With only a few days to the start of the tournament, Nigeria are only one of the favourites amongst the likes of Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, Ivory Coast and 2019 winners Algeria. Yet, they should be excited about their prospects compared to the last edition where they were robbed of the services of several key players.
One would nevertheless be missing from an already light midfield department in Ivory Coast as the injured Wilfred Ndidi has been replaced by Alhassan Yusuf, who has long deserved regular call-ups while starring for Royal Antwerp.
The defensive midfielder helped The Great Old to the Belgian league title last season to qualify for their first-ever UEFA Champions League group stage where they competed against Barcelona, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. Yusuf duly made his mark in that competition with a goal in the defeat to Porto and an assist in their maiden win against Barca.
The 23-year-old has Frank Onyeka and Raphael Onyedika ahead of him in the pecking order for a partner to Alex Iwobi or Joe Aribo in the midfield pivot.
OFFICIAL: Squad numbers of Nigeria's 25-man roster for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations 🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/dKWqlmdCJE— Soar Super Eagles (@SSE_NGA) January 6, 2024
The Super Eagles’ hopes rest fully on the shoulders of AFCON 2023 qualification top scorer, Victor Osimhen, who hit ten goals on the road to Ivory Coast and will spearhead their attack this month. The reigning African Player of The Year is tipped to shine but Nigeria’s defensive issues will be their greatest undoing during the tournament.
It is the sole reason why they are not clear favourites this year.
Francis Uzoho has done everything but inspire confidence in the defence ahead of him and fans alike as he arrives under massive pressure. Hence, all eyes would be on how the defensive balance holds up in the pressure-cooker environment of knockout football.
This is a massive test of Peseiro’s managerial acumen when he is faced with the passionate and unexpected scenarios only the AFCON brings. The tournament can be very unforgiving and so is the country’s 200 million-strong army of ‘tactical gurus’ ready to dissect his every decision or indecision.
Would the 63-year-old be ready to make bold moves for the sake of his ambition? The next few weeks will reveal all.