THE Super Eagles have a squad with superior quality to Ghana’s at the moment, but the Nigerians have to scale a mental hurdle to overcome their not-so-friendly neighbours.
The two most successful footballing countries in West Africa are locked in a battle for one of Africa’s five tickets to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, with the first half of the titanic battle on Friday night (tonight) in Kumasi.
The second leg is in Abuja on Tuesday, with Ghana seeking to return to the World Cup they missed in 2018 while Nigeria are after a fourth straight Mundial.
On the surface, the Super Eagles should be clear favourites: they are ranked higher by FIFA (32nd in the world and third in Africa to 61st in the world and 11th in Africa), they did better at the recent Africa Cup of Nations than Ghana, and they have much more accomplished players.
But in derbies, especially ones between these two countries, form and squad quality hardly count.
Over the years, Ghana have had the better of Nigeria in their head-to-heads, even at the times when Nigeria were clear favourites.
Of the 49 senior clashes between the two countries, Ghana have won 21, while Nigeria have won 10, with 18 ending in draws.
Indeed, the last time the Super Eagles beat the Black Stars was at the 2006 AFCON in Port Said, Cairo when the Nigerians went on to win the group and reach the semi-finals as the Ghanaians crashed out early.
It is the burden of this head-to-head record and long winless streak against Ghana the Super Eagles must confront and conquer for them to reach their seventh World Cup.
Since Nigeria’s last win over Ghana, the two teams have met four times, with the Black Stars winning thrice and the last one, a friendly in October 2011, ending in a draw.
To end this run and reassert their supremacy on the way to Qatar, the Super Eagles must make their superior quality count and not let the hostile Kumasi crowd intimidate them.
In Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, Porto left-back Zaidu Sanusi, Glasgow Rangers pair Leon Balogun and Joe Aribo, Villarreal forward Samuel Chukwueze as well as Leicester City pair Kelechi Iheanacho and Ademola Lookman, the Super Eagles are packed with enough stars to normally ease past Ghana.
But they have to overcome the mental block of not beating the Black Stars in 16 long years and the attendant extra pressure that comes with the jollof derby to play to their true potential.
Unlike in the past when Ghana also had plenty of high-quality stars across their squad, the present set is mostly made up of up-and-coming players and a handful of top stars.
Arsenal’s Thomas Partey, Ajax Amsterdam’s Muhammed Kudus and Crystal Palace’s Jordan Ayew are just about the only instantly recognisable names in the Black Stars squad, but the Ghanaians could turn into world beaters whenever they meet Nigeria.
Current Super Eagles head coach Austin Eguavoen was also the one who oversaw the team’s last win over Ghana in Egypt, but he was also the coach of the Nigeria U-23s who were beaten 2-0 by Ghana in Kumasi in 2011.
Eguavoen thus has two advantages he must make use of: he knows what it feels to beat Ghana and he is aware of how difficult they make life for visiting teams in Kumasi.
In that 2011 encounter, in which current Super Eagles striker Odion Ighalo was also part, the Ghanaians harassed the Nigerian team before, during and after the match, with their fans and team officials taking turns to intimidate the visitors.
Eguavoen should make sure that the players have every detail of that ugly treatment and no antics from the Ghanaians this time should come as a surprise.
With national pride, a World Cup spot and millions of dollars of FIFA money at stake, the Super Eagles have to produce their 100 percent in Kumasi and Abuja.
If they do that and Eguavoen gets his tactics spot on, Nigeria’s flag will be flying in Qatar in November and December.