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PREVIEW: Egypt, Nigeria eye AFCON return

Egypt and Nigeria will lock horns in mouthwatering back to back encounters, as both teams target a return to the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Super Eagles will host the Pharaohs in Kaduna on 25th March before making the trip to Alexandria four days later.

Both giants are targeting a return to the biennial tournament after the 2013 champions missed out on the last edition, while the Pharaohs have been absent for three consecutive tournaments.

With only the group winners guaranteed a ticket to the 2017 AFCON, the results of these two games will greatly determine the outcome of Group G as both sides then face minnows Chad and Tanzania in the final two fixtures.

The Egyptian side leads the group with maximum points following victories against Tanzania (3-0) and Chad (1-5). The Eagles are second after a hard fought home victory against Chad (2-0) before only managing a goalless draw in Tanzania.

However, things have changed in the Nigerian camp since then. Former coach Sunday Oliesh resigned and Samson Siasia has been appointed as the new head coach, for a second spell, one month before the crucial encounters against the Pharaohs. There is a fresh breath of optimism accompanying his appointment, among fans and players alike, with star man Odion Ighalo expressing his confidence that Siasia is the right man to lead the Super Eagles to the continental big stage.

In addition, Ighalo himself, among others in the Nigerian squad, have been in impressive form recently. Igahlo has been instrumental in Watford’s campaign in the English Premier League with 14 goals. Alex Iwobi is also expected to play big role for the Super Eagles after scoring on his full Premier League debut for Arsenal at Goodison Park last weekend. The teenager has also impressed for his side at the Nou Camp against Barcelona in the Champions League.

While the Super Eagles squad is often filled with foreign-based players, the Egyptians were never dependent on foreign stars in their most recent successes. However, this may be about to change; with their current top scorer in the qualifiers Bassem Morsi out of the 25-man Egypt squad and out of form this season, Ahmed Hassan (Koka)’s finishing skills will be called upon more than ever. Koka is in fine form for Portuguese side Braga, recently playing a crucial role to help his side advance in the Europa League. Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s most famous current player, is now the top scorer of his club AS Roma this season and will carry a lot of the Pharaohs hopes on his shoulder. Mohamed Elneny is getting more playing time at Arsenal having played the full game against Everton last week. In addition he scored his side’s only goal at the Nou Camp, in a game where he covered more ground than any other player on the pitch.

The Pharaohs have recently struggled away from home with the famous 6-1 defeat to Ghana in 2014 World Cup qualifiers not the only worrying sign. In fact Egypt lost its most recent qualifying away game in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers to Chad. However, Egyptian manager Hector Cuper is confident in his team’s abilities to beat the Super Eagles. Egypt has won the last two meetings between the two sides, a 3-2 friendly victory in 2012 and a 3-1 victory in the group stage at the 2010 AFCON.

Egypt’s legendary goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary has been ruled out of the match through an injury he picked up in training, which means Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shennawy is likely to stand between the posts. Pharaohs captain Hossam Ghaly  reportedly picked up a knock, which may see Ibrahim Salah partner Mohamed Elneny in his place. Meanwhile, Super Eagles defender Leon Balogun will also certainly miss the first qualifier after picking up a muscular injury this week, joining Kenneth Omeruo on the sidelines.

Expected XIs:

Nigeria: Carl Ikeme; Matthew Etim, Efe Ambrose, Godfrey Oboabona, Shehu Abdullahi; John Obi Mikel, Okechukwu Azubuike, Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses; Ahmed Musa, Odion Jude Ighalo.

Egypt: Ahmed El-Shennawy; Omar Gaber, Ahmed Hegazy, Rami Rabia, Hamada Tolba; Mohamed Elneny, Ibrahim Salah; Abdallah El-Said, Ramadan Sobhy, Mohamed Salah; Ahmed Hassan ‘Koka’.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the games, both sides will worry defensively about coping with the attacking talent on the pitch, but the Nigerian home crowd, coupled with Egypt’s poor away from, make the Super Eagles favourite in Kaduna. Overall, the double header will be a great advert for African football.

A Biomedical Engineer; Passionate about African football and admirer of the continent, its people, flags and vuvuzelas.

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