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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2021: Nigeria strive to dismiss North African hoodoo against Egypt

8:07 AM EST 1/10/22
Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi - Nigeria
The Super Eagles may have a superior head to head over the Pharaohs but they have endured a chequered run of late against sides from that region

In the aftermath of August’s Africa Cup of Nations draw, the excitement was palpable for Nigerians but also was the sense of trepidation.

Their opening game at the finals was to be with an Egypt side led by the irrepressible Mohamed Salah, a draw they probably wanted to avoid if it were up to them. At the time when performances under then-manager Gernot Rohr were dispiriting, many believed their prospects were minimal against the Pharaohs.

Be that as it may, at least there was Victor Osimhen.

There was always a feeling the Super Eagles carried a real menace going forward with the Napoli frontman who led the attack brilliantly regardless of the service received.

With him, the West Africans had a fighting chance against any opponent.

Fast forward five months and the three-time African champions head into Tuesday’s clash without their major frontman, having replaced him in the squad in early January following a positive coronavirus test.

He has since recovered, further annoying Nigerians who questioned the hurried removal in the first place.

On top of that, jettisoning the much-maligned Rohr so close to the competition and the swathe of forced changes to the squad have added to the sense of unease and unpreparedness, thus curbing pre-tournament expectations.

Some might argue that is not particularly a bad thing, although Augustine Eguavoen reckons there is pressure to claim the nation’s fourth African title.

“It spurs us but also put us under a bit of pressure, even if it is Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, Gernot Rohr, you can’t say you are not under pressure,” Eguavoen told NFF TV shortly after the side’s Garoua arrival last week.

“People are saying yes they expect Nigeria to win the Afcon, that puts me under some pressure.”

Any chance of success will be boosted by a strong opening day performance against the Pharaohs, whom they have generally fared well against at Afcon. Nigeria edges the head-to-head between both nations at the finals, winning three and suffering two losses in eight meetings (three draws).

Having said that, the last of those Afcon encounters came in 2010 where an unstoppable Pharaohs side defeated the West Africans 3-1 en route to a third successive Afcon title.

While this iteration is not at the level of arguably Africa’s greatest side, Nigeria’s wider struggles to get the better of North African opponents since the mid-2000s persist.

Excluding their third-place playoff success over Tunisia in 2019, only one victory has been recorded against sides from that region since the turn of the millennium. Nigeria won three successive games from 2000 to 2002, scoring seven times and conceding twice in that period.

However, the defeat by Morocco in 2004 was the start of an ongoing run in which the Super Eagles have claimed just one victory in five fixtures over sides from North Africa. Their only success in that time was a dramatic shoot-out triumph over Tunisia in 2006, two years after the Carthage Eagles beat the Eagles on penalties as hosts.

Owing to their non-participation at three of four finals preceding the 2019 tournament, there was a lull in that rivalry.

They got another bite of the cherry against Algeria in the preceding tournament, but a Riyad Mahrez free-kick at the death put paid to Nigeria’s desire to edge a North African nation and, in turn, ruin their ambition for a fourth African title.

Without an open-play win over a team from that region since 2002 and due to several complications before this year’s tournament, Eguavoen’s men enter Tuesday’s clash with nothing to lose as slight underdogs.

Whether this precipitates a strong showing when they battle Salah and co. in their tournament opener remains to be seen.