Ahead of AFCON Nigeria vs Zimbabwe: Beyond A Friendly Game

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As Super Eagles will be putting a final preparation in its quest of doing well at the Africa Cup of Nations slated for Egypt with a friendly game against the Warriors of Zimbabwe, Kunle Adewale reports that the encounter would be more than a friendly as it would decide the fate of some players to the land of the Pharaohs

When Nigeria’s senior national football team Manager, Gernot Rohr announced Super Eagles’ 25-man provisional list for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) billed for Egypt there were divergent opinions over some of the names on list by soccer loving Nigerians and football analysts alike.

Most of the arguments are based on the fact that some of the invited players are suffering from loss in form, while others had not tasted action for their clubs in a while and are therefore match-rusty and not fit to be included in the party to Egypt.

Some of these arguments would be put to test today at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba, when the Super Eagles take on the Warriors of Zimbabwe in what is perhaps the team’s last international friendly game before embarking to Egypt, where the team will also play Senegal in a warm-up friendly in Ismailia on June 16.

Rohr indeed disclosed that the final list of players to represent the country in Egypt would be released after the tune up game against Zimbabwe today in Asaba, while assuring the players that they have equal opportunity to make the team, adding that the technical crew would use the match against Zimbabwe to assess them,

“I have to assess the players in training and also make my final conclusion after giving the players the chance to play against Zimbabwe before picking my 23 players for the AFCON. The Nations Cup would be tough and only the strongest and fittest team have the chance to win the championship.

“To achieve this, the Super Eagles need to be exposed in rigorous training two times a day. They would train in the morning, afternoon and evening to keep them fit for the challenges ahead. Every player would be given equal chance to prove himself,” he declared.

The German tactician has concerns over the likes of Leon Balogun and Kelechi Iheanacho, who saw relatively little playing time at their Premier League clubs – Brighton & Hove Albion and Leicester City respectively this past season.

“I want to see a lot of players who are not playing so much, give them the opportunity to play. It can be for some defenders like Balogun, he is fit but he didn’t play so much, so we want to see him playing on Saturday and also some players like Kelechi who didn’t play at all, so we want to see him play on Saturday,” Rohr told reporters in Asaba.

Speaking further he said “We have to be very fit because of high temperature in Egypt which is between 30 to 40 degrees centigrade and it will be difficult to recover. That is why we have to prepare very well. Our first match is against Burundi and we have to beat this team. We have in our group two teams who are newcomers because they have never been to the AFCON before.

“It is not going to be easy playing against them because they will have enthusiasm. Guinea also has a very good team. We have to come out of this group and try to be in the round of 16 and quarter finals. We have a lot of games to play and we are ready for that.”

Describing the integration of Super Eagles captain Mikel Obi into the team as “natural” he said “the players are happy to see him and he has been working very hard.”

Of the 25 players invited by Rohr for the final phase of the preparations, only defender William Ekong arrived on Thursday.

Defender Abdullahi Shehu and forwards Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi arrived the team’s Golden Tulip Hotel just before lunch on Wednesday, while forward Odion Ighalo, top scorer in the entire qualifying campaign, was expected on Wednesday night.

Rohr however admitted that Troost-Ekong will not be ready for the game, ” He (Troost-Ekong) will not make it for the friendly game against Zimbabwe. We expect him to arrive soon but he won’t be ready for the game on Saturday,” Rohr said.

After today’s game, the Nigeria contingent will fly to Egypt on Sunday aboard a chartered aircraft, for another week of intensive strategy and tactics perfection.

The NFF must submit the final list of 23 players to the Confederation of African Football by Tuesday, June 11.

Meanwhile, a 26 –man delegation of the senior national team of Zimbabwe landed in Nigeria on Thursday night aboard a South African Airways flight, ahead of today’s pre-AFCON sendforth international friendly with the Super Eagles.

The Zimbabwe delegation spent Thursday night in Lagos, and flew to Asaba on Friday morning. On Friday evening, the Warriors held their official training session at the Stephen Keshi Stadium.

Zimbabwe will campaign in Group A of the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations finals taking place in Egypt June 21 –July 19, alongside host nation Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Nigeria is the seeded team in Group B that also has Burundi, Guinea and Madagascar.

The Warriors will actually kick off the tournament against hosts Egypt at the Cairo Stadium on the night of June 21.