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AFCON qualifier: Super Eagles seek to avoid unwanted history vs Sierra Leone

THE Super Eagles begin their journey towards yet another Africa Cup of Nations this evening in Abuja as they host Sierra Leone.

While securing the ticket to the continental showpiece billed for Cote d’Ivoire next year is the main objective, the Eagles are in dire need of flying high for other reasons too.

The Super Eagles’ last win was in January against Guinea-Bissau at the AFCON in Cameroon, after which they have lost to Tunisia, Mexico and Ecuador, and drawn twice with Ghana.

A sixth straight match without a win would be the longest ever the team has gone without tasting victory.

The fixture against Sierra Leone is the first match of the qualifying campaign for the 2023 AFCON and victory on home soil is important for the three-time winners of the competition as they welcome their West African rivals.

An opening day win today followed by a positive result against Sao Tome and Principe on Monday in Marrakech, Morocco will leave the Super Eagles in a comfortable position as the players go on their summer break.

Going by ranking and pedigree, Sierra Leone should be light work for Nigeria, but recent evidence paints a different picture.

Although ranked 78 spots below Nigeria by FIFA (108th to Nigeria’s 30th) Sierra Leone have held their own against their much more accomplished opponents in recent encounters.

Indeed, the Leone Stars produced the result of the qualifiers for the 2021 AFCON when they came from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 with the Super Eagles in Benin City in November 2020.

The tiny West African side then held Nigeria to another draw in Freetown to qualify for the tournament in Cameroon, where they made a mark, drawing with both Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire before narrowly losing to Equatorial Guinea.

Now, the Super Eagles need to win today at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium (kick-off 5pm) in order to also avoid going three consecutive games without a win against Sierra Leone for the first time since their first-ever meeting in 1961.

In the 16 fixtures between the two West African teams, the Super Eagles are clearly ahead in the head-to-heads with nine wins. The Leone Stars have won only twice, including a 1-0 win in a World Cup qualifier in Freetown that led to the firing of Jo Bonfrere as Nigeria head coach.

An unlikely defeat would surely not lead to the sacking of Super Eagles new head coach Jose Peseiro, but it would plant serious doubts in the minds of his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation, and Nigerians.

The 62-year-old Portuguese, who has previously coached Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and worked with the biggest clubs in his homeland, is yet to taste victory as Nigeria coach and he will see this as the perfect opportunity and setting.

Although there will be no spectators at the stadium due to a one-match ban caused by the ugly scenes at the end of the 1-1 draw with Ghana in March, Peseiro will still relish his first win coming at his new home.

After back-to-back defeats in friendlies against Mexico and Ecuador in the United States of America, Peseiro will be keen to bag his first win in his first competitive fixture, with millions of Nigerians tuning in on television.

In a bid to get that crucial win, Peseiro has brought in all the big guns who missed the trip to America.

Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, Villarreal forward Samuel Chukwueze, Porto left-back Zaidu Sanusi, Rangers centre-back Leon Balogun and Leicester City forward Ademola Lookman have all joined the squad in Abuja.

Peseiro will hope the players will deliver for him a much-needed victory against the Leone Stars and end a winless streak that stretches back to five matches, the longest for Nigeria in 59 years.

Peseiro would dearly hope to achieve the triple aim of starting off his AFCON campaign with the three points, ending an unproductive run that began under Austin Eguavoen and avoiding a piece of dubious history.

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Naija Times