The Super Eagles of Nigeria – third-ranked team in Africa and three-time African champions – start their quest for a fourth AFCON title on Saturday against the Swallows of Burundi, debutants and the 37th–ranked team in Africa.
With all respect, this should be a banker for three points but the Swallows qualified for their first Nations Cup without suffering any defeat.
They came second behind Mali in Group C of the qualifiers, over a more-fancied Gabon.
So the Super Eagles will be best advised to bring their A game to the Alexandria Stadium on Saturday.
Both teams lost their last friendly matches; Nigeria went down 1-0 to Senegal, Africa’s No.1 team, while Burundi also lost narrowly, 2-1, to Tunisia by a 93rd-minute goal.
The narrative going into the encounter is that both teams are hard to break down while they will not score many goals.
Gernot Rohr revealed to cafonline.com, “I watched them in their last match against Tunisia and we have analysed most of their videos and I can say they are not an easy team.”
Head to head
Sun 24/01/99 ACO Nigeria 2-0 Burundi
In their sole encounter, Garba Lawal and Finidi George were the scorers and that scoreline would suffice for the Eagles’ opening game so they can take control of a group that also contains a tricky Guinea and Madagascar.
Current Form: Nigeria [L-D-W-W-D]; Burundi [L-D-D-W-D]
Possible key battles
Ekong v Berahino – Against the most dangerous Swallow, Ekong must be all eyes and concentration because the former England desirable still has enough skill and pace to embarrass any slow defender.
Ekong must also be wary of trying to do too much with the ball at his feet.
Iwobi v Bigirimana – This battle is between two African players born in England who cut their teeth in the English Premier League.
Whilst Gael Bigirimana can be described as a 25-year-old battle-hardened workhorse, Alex Iwobi can be described as the Eagles’ playmaker.
If the Arsenal winger cum forward finds space behind the Burundian midfield, then his strikers will make hay.
Ighalo v Nsabiyumva – Ighalo scored six goals on the continent in qualifiers but he is just recovering from injury but his international experience could count against the relative inexperience of 25-year-old Chippa United defender, Frederic Nsabiyumva.
Stats that Matter [AFCON qualifiers]
|Avg. Ball Possession||0.65||0.37|
“The Nigerian players are convinced that they will win as a strong team, but we will not let them do that. The most beautiful thing about football is that it’s full of surprises, which is what we are trying to exploit.” – Saido Berahino, Burundi star forward
“We have prepared for this match just like we prepare for all our games. For us humility is key and we can’t underrate any opponent.” – Gernot Rohr, Nigeria manager
Nigeria [4-3-3]: Akpeyi; Aina, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Collins; Ndidi, Obi Mikel, Etebo; Iwobi; Musa, Ighalo
Burundi [4-2-3-1]: Ndikumana; Nsabiyumva, Amissi, Nduwarugira, Moussa; Kamsoba, Ngandu, Bigirimana, Berahino; Razak, Duhayindavyi