Eagle heights for Lion Kings
Cameroon’s triumph over Egypt in the 2017 Afcon final has been a refreshing turn of event, and they will now represent Africa at the Fifa Confederations Cup. But can they also make it to the 2018 Fifa world Cup in Russia?
They have the unenviable task of chasing down Nigeria in a group that also includes both Algeria and Zambia, who have held them to draws in the two matchdays played before the Afcon.
The Lions will go into the next edition, the 2019 Afcon, as hosts and defending champions, making that the first time ever in the history of the Afcon that the same country will be both hosts and defending champions.
They would love to take their Afcon form all the way to Russia, but can we afford to write them off as many did before Gabon 2017?
No one gave them a chance to make it that far, especially when they started the campaign with a stutter, barely managing a 1-1 draw with Burkina Faso and coming from behind to beat the emerging threats of Guinea Bissau, but it was against hosts Gabon that they showed their tenacity, holding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his gang to a 0-0 draw.
They had to battle through an excruciating penalty shootout to overcome tournament favourites Senegal on penalties after extra-time, and at that point, perhaps owed everything to the heroics of goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa.
It was clear when they faced Ghana in the semifinals that the team had improved with each game, and they soaked up the Ghanaian pressure, sucking them in and hitting them with sweeping counter-attacking football that produced a killer second goal.
Egypt had the odds but the Lions had the tenacity to fight back from a goal down to produce one of the most dramatic finals of the Afcon. A fifth title was won and now the world awaits, and the Super Eagles circle above them dangling the one ticket to Russia that they really crave.
Cameroon and Nigeria have probably the deepest rivalry on the continent and until yesterday, when they faced Egypt in Gabon, both Countries have faced off the most times in the continental showcase, with the Lions winning all three, 3-1 in Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire at Afcon 1984, and 1-0 in Rabat, Morocco at Afcon 1988, and a controversial penalty shootout victory in Lagos, Nigeria in 2000.
The Lions also topped Nigeria in 1989 on their way to their best World cup performance at Italia 90. Can they do so again?
They have two points while Nigeria have the maximum six points from two games, and anything short of a victory for the Lions over the next two games against Nigeria, home and away, will make that really difficult.
What makes this even more intriguing is that Nigeria was again absent from the Afcon following on from their failure to qualify for the 2015 edition, while they also missed the 2012 Afcon, also in Gabon. How they would love to deny the African champions.
Many purists have wondered if the Super Eagles would have been huge contenders at the tournament, going by their recent run of form before the tournament where they beat Zambia 2-1 away in Ndola and Algeria 3-1 at home.
Nigeria has had some kind of renaissance under German coach, Gernot Rohr, and a new young team captained by John Obi Mikel and parading a fearless bunch of youngsters in Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, Man City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and new Leicester signing Wilfred Ndidi.
They are showing some of the hunger that has been lacking in the team over the last two failed Afcon campaigns since winning the 2013 tournament and making the second round at Brazil 2014.
They are also spreading the goals along and not showing any dependence on Odion Ighalo or a Ahmed Musa, as the focus has been on the great work ethic and raw desire to make their mark, with Rohr willing to give opportunities to fresh talent.
Ighalo and Mikel have since joined the growing exodus of big name players to China, and it is feared this might affect their form, but they remain some of the more experienced heads in the team.
So they will see the triumph of Cameroon as a chance to prove that they could have been contenders in Gabon, viewing a win over the Indomitable Lions as a triumph over the African champions.
They have also exhibited a lack of respect for big names or pedigree with the way they dispatched Algeria in Uyo and Zambia in Ndola, but that seems like a long time ago.
There will therefore be a lot of interest in the group of death.
Is it too late for the Lions? I don’t think so . I believe it is still possible for the Lions to qualify for Russia 2018 if they win all their games, and on the form we just saw, I dare say it is possible.
They have the added incentive of their age-long rivalry with Nigeria to inspire them, and how lucky they were that they didn’t have to meet Nigeria soon after Nigeria beat both Zambia and Algeria.
However, they do have an uphill task going up against Nigeria, and beating them in one game let alone two games. They will need Zambia and Algeria to beat or take points away from Nigeria, and that is what will make the months of August, September, October and November the most eagerly anticipated by football fans, not just in Africa, but elsewhere around the world.
Honestly, I can’t wait for August, and I am sure many fans will be salivating at the prospect. While many teams will be afraid to face the Lions, for Nigeria, whether in Doula or Yaounde, the venue on 28 August is where Eagles dare!
28 August, 2017
Nigeria v Cameroon
Zambia v Algeria
2 September, 2017
Cameroon v Nigeria
Algeria v Zambia
2 October, 2017
Cameroon v Algeria
Nigeria v Zambia
6 November, 2017
Algeria v Nigeria
Zambia v Nigeria