Nigeria will, for the first time, emerge from an Africa Cup of Nations group phase expedition with an immaculate record if the Super Eagles does not concede against the Barea of Madagascar at the Alexandria Stadium on Sunday.
One-goal wins over Burundi and Guinea at the same venue in earlier days means the three-time champions have booked a ticket in the Round of 16, but history beckons for a first-ever clean sheet in group phase account since their first appearance at the finals in 1963.
The closest the Eagles have come to a clean sheet in group phase was 13 years ago – also in Egypt – when they defeated Ghana and Zimbabwe 1-0 and 2-0 respectively but conceded one goal in a 2-1 defeat of Senegal in their third match in Port Said.
So much is riding on Sunday’s encounter that any expectations of a ‘soft’ session in Egypt’s second city will go up in smoke from the first blast of the referee’s whistle.
Debutants Madagascar’s 2-2 draw with Guinea in their first match and 1-0 win over Burundi on Thursday mean they now have a place in the Round of 16, but they are bound to go full throttle against group leaders Nigeria having never scored a goal against the Super Eagles in four previous encounters. They are also determined to give their all to at least finish second in the pool, knowing that Guinea (with one point) could still push them farther down the ladder if they win well against Burundi and they – Barea – are flayed by Nigeria.
Four of the group winners will play against third –place finishers in the Round of 16, and only the Barea can still upstage Nigeria in group B, as they would go top if they defeat the Super Eagles on Sunday.
For Nigeria, more than the desire for a historic clean sheet in group phase, the attractive option of playing a third-place finisher in Round of 16, as well as the need to remain in now familiar Alexandria for their next game, will push them to confront the Barea with all their strength.
Acting President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Barrister Seyi Akinwunmi, said: “We have six points and are already in the Round of 16. But the team wants a clean record in this group stage to go ahead with and get used to. There will definitely be bigger hurdles later on in the tournament so there is the need to get used to winning and maintaining clean sheets.”
Coach Gernot Rohr faces up to his in-laws, as his wife is from the Indian Ocean island. And there is the additional variable of CAF President Ahmad being from Madagascar and his immediate deputy, Amaju Melvin Pinnick, being a Nigerian. Pinnick is also the President of AFCON.
Nicolas Dupuis’ wards were the first team to qualify for the AFCON 2019, and have gained tremendous confidence on their debut with the draw with Guinea and victory over Burundi.
Sunday’s encounter will be Nigeria’s 89th match at the Africa Cup of Nations in 18 appearances, from which they have won 47, drawn 22 and lost 19.
They have also won the title three times, won silver medals five times and picked up the bronze seven times.
On individual honours’ level, Nigeria captain Mikel John Obi will earn his 89th cap for the Eagles in 14 years of commendable service if he is fielded, while deputy captain Ahmed Musa countenances his 81st cap.