The Nigeria U23 team, the Dream Team VI, will be kick-starting their quest for a berth at next year’s Rio Olympic Games with their opening group game at the Africa U23 Cup of Nations against Mali on Sunday.
After Coach Austin Eguavoen failed to qualify Nigeria for the men’s football event of the 2012 London Olympics, the onus is now on Coach Samson Siasia to get Nigeria back to the stage of the biggest multi sports events in the world.
While the build-up by Nigeria to the Africa U23 Cup of Nations could indeed have been much better, there would be no excuse for the Dream Team VI not to secure one of the three tickets up for grabs in Senegal.
A longer route for a playoff will be available for the fourth placed team in Senegal
The Nigeria U23 team were in Gambia for a 10-day training camp where they also played three quality friendly games; and they were unbeaten in all.
Though Coach Siasia could not lay his hands on all the players he would have love to use in Senegal, the Nigeria U23 Head Coach still has enough firepower to make the minimum requirement of finishing in top three amongst the eight teams on parade in Senegal.
Setback for foes
Unfortunately, it has not been the best of times for Nigeria’s U23 AFCON Group B rivals Mali and Egypt who both suffered major injury blows forcing them to make late replacements to their final squad.
Egypt’s star midfielder, Saleh Gomaa, whose fitness has been in doubt for over a week, has been ruled out of the competition after suffering a muscle tear after it was initially thought the problem was a minor strain.
Al Ahly star Gomaa, who is a full international, has now been replaced by Mohamed Metwally.
Egypt have also had to substitute Ismaily’s Emad Hamdy Ibrahim with Mamdouh Khaled El Sayed.
On their part, Mali have also had to replace forward Moussa Doumbia from Russian outfit FC Rostov after he suffered a thigh injury in a warm-up against Senegal.
He has been replaced by COB winger Abdoulaye Diarra, who was the biggest omission of the 21-man list after featuring in the qualifiers.
Regardless of the setback, Nigeria will still need to be cautious against their tricky group opponents; Mali and Egypt as many believe they are actually no minnows in the roster of eight teams on parade at this year’s Africa U23 Cup of Nations.
It’s no secret that Malian football is on the rise after they shone at the FIFA U20 and U17 World Cups, their proximity to Senegal should also count for something as they will be guaranteed much support from the stands.
Mali last featured at the Olympics in Athens 2004 and they gladly want a return to Rio this term.
For Egypt, the depth of manpower on the bench could be their greatest strength as the Junior Pharaohs will have full international coach Hector Cuper on the bench alongside former Al Ahly coach Hossam Al Badri to ensure they will showcase their undoubted class in Brazil next year.
Nigeria prides itself as the first sub Saharan country to win gold at the Olympics after the heroics of the 1996 Olympics team under Jo Bonfere.
Interestingly, Coach Siasia was in charge of the last Nigeria team to the Olympics and it was in Beijing 2008 when Nigeria settled for Silver after losing to Argentina in the final.
Group B Matches (Sunday)
Egypt vs Algeria
Mali vs Nigeria