The Super Eagles’ opponent in the quarter-final of the ongoing 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt are not an unfamiliar foe as pride and glory awaits the winner of this mouth-watering duel.
Bafana Bafana of South Africa’s reward for expertly out-playing and stunning the heavily favoured seven-time champions and hosts Egypt is a date with old foes Nigeria at the Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday.
The rivalry between the Super Eagles of Nigeria and Bafana Bafana of South Africa can be ranked side by side along that of Ghana and Cameroon.
Nigeria and South Africa are making a return to AFCON since 2013 in South Africa where they were crowned champions having failed to qualify for the last two editions.
The Super Eagles have gradually picked form having started their campaign in the group stage on a rather sluggish note, managing to beat AFCON first-timers, Burundi and Guinea, by a lone goal each before slumping to a disappointing 0-2 defeat to Madagascar to finish as runners up in Group B.
They however look hungry and proved their character by beating defending champions Cameroon 3-2 in the last 16 on Sunday in Alexandria.
China-based striker Odion Ighalo stood particularly tall with his brace, silencing the few doubts that had crept in over his ability to lead the line.
With Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi also breaking his AFCON duck, it seems Coach Gernot Rohr might be getting his team into tune at just the right time.
Bafana Bafana on the other hand had shown that they are indeed true contenders when they took on hosts Egypt in the last 16 on Saturday.
Against all odds, the South Africans came out tops with a lone goal victory to qualify for the quarterfinals, having themselves struggled to make it out of the group stage as one of the best third place finishers with three points in Group D.
Fortunately for Bafana, the tide of history had ‘somewhat’ turned in their favour in recent times.
Having previously only beaten the Nigerians once, in 2004, Stuart Baxter’s men put in an admirable display in Uyo two years ago to emerge 2-0 victors.
That qualifier, and the 1-1 return in which the Super Eagles dominated but were denied two apparent goals in Johannesburg, saw both teams qualify for this year’s competition with a match to spare for the Eagles.
Both teams have met thirteen (13) times, with Nigeria running out winners on six occasions, South Africa winning twice and both sides settling for a draw five times.
While Nigeria has not failed to make it to the semi-final of six out of eight last editions it participated in (2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2013), South Africa has only made it to the semi-final twice (1996 and 1998).
Both sides have been talking tough ahead of the all-important clash with Coach Gernot Rohr quoted as saying that his charges are very much looking forward to Wednesday night’s clash, which brings together once more two teams who were involved in the same group in the qualifying campaign.
Rohr is not one to forget sharp pains inflicted by lower-ranked teams, and the fury of what happened in Uyo on June 10, 2017, – his first loss as Eagles’ manager in a competitive match – could be deduced in the way he spoke on arrival in Cairo, though he insisted that Nigeria is not thinking of revenge but simply a place in the semi finals.
“We are here to win. It is not going to be an easy match, but surely if you have to win the Africa Cup, you will not expect to be faced with easy matches at this stage.
“We know ourselves from the qualifying campaign and it will be no holds-barred on Wednesday. It is not a matter of revenge; it is about reaching the semi finals,” Rohr was quoted as saying.
Nigeria’s army includes three members of the squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa in 2013, namely defender Kenneth Omeruo; midfielder and skipper Mikel John Obi, and forward and deputy skipper Ahmed Musa.
There is also forward Ighalo, who topped the scorers’ chart in the AFCON 2019 qualifying race with seven goals, and is joint top scorer in the ongoing finals with three goals, alongside Senegalese Sadio Mane.
Indeed, Ighalo’s man-of-the-match performance was the tonic the Eagles needed to overcome the Cup holders on Saturday.
There is also goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi, who turns out for South African Premier Soccer League side Kaizer Chiefs.
He has not had many opportunities with the senior team but is number one at the ongoing finals.
On the other hand for Bafana Bafana, it remains to be seen if Coach Baxter will make any changes to the team that was so excellent against Egypt.
Given that he refused to make a substitution before the 90th minute last time out, lest he upset the formula he had stumbled upon, the likely answer is no.
Thembinkhosi Lorch at the very least will surely keep his place on the left in attack, especially after the South Africa’s player of the year slotted neatly into Egypt’s bottom corner.
It’s unlikely the Scot will risk their ire once more. Not to mention the attack, which is complemented with the effervescent threat of Percy Tau on the other side, now looks genuinely threatening.
The truth is everyone was surprised by Bafana’s relentless outing. Their success in starving Salah et al of meaningful possession was driven by a determination that had been seen too rarely of late.
The question now is can Baxter find a way to replicate it again by grounding the Super Eagles?
Only time will tell as the African continent eagerly awaits the outcome of this great rivalry between two old foes from 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Cairo International Stadium. (NAN)