By Iwedi Ojinmah
On October 7, the Nigeria Super Eagles will host the spry Chipolopolo of Zambia in the all-important 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Uyo.
As we know, Zambia after their sweep of Algeria last month, now trail the Super Eagles by a mere three points in Group B World Cup Qualifiers Third Round, making this encounter not just delicious on paper, but on the turf, a virtual must-win for both teams.
Nigeria, after the disaster against South Africa in the 2019 AFCON Qualifiers, has gotten her groove back. She pulled the African Champion apart like a soft loaf of bread, not once but twice, and was very unlucky not to claim six points from both games.
With his team at full strength and other than Ikeme’s condition, Coach Gernot Rohr sits in the rare and pleasant position of having all arrows in his quiver and can prepare a proper ambush for the team from southern Africa.
One of his biggest challenges will be to find the perfect mix among his poachers as resurgent Odion Ighalo, Moses Simon, Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa and Anthony Nwakaeme are all frothing at the mouth and eager to play.
Despite sitting out Chelsea’s loss to Manchester City last week, Victor Moses is in red hot form and as unarguably Nigeria’s best and most important player, that speaks volumes for the Eagles as he is the equivalent to a dozen arrows himself.
When confronted by a stagnated midfield it is he who cancels the oft ineffective long ball, and ferries the ball up the wings, right or left, and then feeds it to the strikers while not being afraid to take a shot himself. It is no coincidence that he has either scored or hit the woodwork in the last five games he has dressed in green and white. In addition to that, he fills lanes and often forces the double team.
The next most important player for Nigeria come Saturday will be Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
A far cry from both Enyeama and Ikeme, Ezenwa has clawed his way past the jellyfish Akpeyi to become the best alternative. Despite the shellacking by Ghana in the WAFU Cup final, he was still rated the MVP for that version of the Eagles and even with the one fumble, held his own against the front line of the Indomitable Lions.
How he plays behind the solid centre-back duo of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong and the not so solid full-backs will be critical. Especially so with Kabala and Fashion Sakala in the Zambian attack on the prowl.
If we remember correctly it was on the sheer heroics from Ikeme in game one in Ndola that prevented the TP Mazembe danger man from bursting the Eagles’ balloon on September 10, 2016 – the reverse fixture Nigeria won 2-1 in Ndola.
Zambia, meanwhile, have been training in Ghana and are bent on keeping their first World Cup hopes alive by causing an upset and preventing Nigeria from participating in her sixth.
Their coach Wedson Nyirenda is brimming with confidence and shared: “The chances to topple Nigeria are still there, we are going into that pitch with only one thing in mind – to go to Russia. Anything can happen.
“Nigeria also has a last game against Algeria and we have a last game against Cameroon at home.
“Many said it was a big gamble, our small team against a big team like Algeria, nobody trusted us, but we took six points from them.
“Football is about the plans you put in place and your application,”
With tons of firepower from the U-20 World Cup winning champions, he, just like Rohr, will have all of his weapons at his disposal and he will certainly go for the Eagles jugular in an effort to make the last match day in Group B between Zambia and Cameroon, and Algeria and Nigeria, a dramatic end to the road to Russia.
It won’t be easy because Nigeria have not only never lost to Zambia at home, but are unbeaten against them in their last seven encounters. Nevertheless, Zambia’s 5-1 pummeling of Nigeria in Lusaka during the 1974 AFCON qualifiers, remains the most lopsided score between the two.
Furthermore, Nigeria has never knocked Zambia out of a qualifier, losing both AFCON series in 1974 and 1980.
Game Time: 17.00 WAT
Date: Saturday, October 7
Venue: Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Uyo
Referees: Joshua Bondo (Centre Referee), Oamogetse Godisamang (Assistant Referee), Osama Hassan Ataaelmanan (Match Commissioner)
Weather: Precipitation – 90%, Wind – 5MPH, Humidity – 86%, Chance of Thunderstorms, Temperature – 81°F.