The result of tomorrow’s clash between home team Cape Verde and the Super Eagles in Mindelo could well define Group C of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, which also has Liberia and Central African Republic.
Three-time African champions Nigeria and the Portuguese-speaking islanders Cape Verde have always been regarded as the top two teams in this group.
And now the first contest between the two teams has taken added significance as the Super Eagles will be without as many as eight of their top stars from the Premier League and Scotland on account of the UK Coronavirus protocol which puts Cape Verde on the Red List.
Seven of the players who started Friday’s clash against Liberia in Lagos will now have to be replaced right from the first whistle against the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde – Ola Aina, Leon Balogun, William Ekong, Wilfred Ndidi, Joe Aribo, Alex Iwobi and two-goal hero Kelechi Iheanacho.
Coach Gernot Rohr has admitted it will be a huge challenge for him as he now has to “completely change” the team against Cape Verde.
The challenge has been made even more difficult as this match will be played on artificial pitch, which most of Nigeria’s Europe-based stars are not used to.
Call-ups like Terem Moffi, Innocent Bonke, Tyronne Ebuehi, Chidra Ejuke, Valentine Ozornwafor, Kingsley Michael and Adekunle Adeleke, who made the expanded squad on account of the absence of the top stars, will now be expected to step up to stake serious claim for places in the team.
Rohr must now have to come up with a new central defensive pairing with Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem the most likely combination, while he has to pick an almost new midfield in the absence of Ndidi, Aribo, Etebo and Iwobi.
Malmo enforcer Innocent Bonke looks good to make his debut in defensive midfield after he shone in his Swedish club’s successful run to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
Paul Onuachu, Henry Onyekuru and Samuel Kalu will be capable options in attack for Victor Osimhen and Moses Simon.
The home team may only be ranked 77th in the world by FIFA as against the 34th place occupied by Nigeria, but they have proved they are capable of causing an upset especially at home, where they have so far beaten Cameroon and South Africa.
Last week, the Blue Sharks were the better team against Central African Republic, but some inspired goalkeeping and poor finishing meant this game ended in a 1-1 draw to the delight of the Central Africans.
Tomorrow’s match will only be the second such meeting at this level between the two West African teams.
The first was eight years ago when the Eagles, on their way to a third AFCON crown, forced Cape Verde to a 1-1 draw in a test game in Spain.
The Blue Sharks were not second best in that game and they can again draw inspiration from that performance when they welcome their more illustrious opponents.
They will not be wrong to fancy themselves pulling off a famous upset.