It’s just less than a month before African stars set foot on the Egyptian desert for the 32nd Edition of the African Cup of Nations. The AFCON has always been the biggest show on the African continent. It’s a celebration of the African culture and gives the world the chance to see the talents we have in the land.
The hosts, reigning champions Cameroon, Ghana, Tunisia, Morocco and the Ivory Coast are among the favourites, but the tournament has been full of shocks and surprises over the years, so the likes of South Africa and Uganda may realistically fancy their chances of enjoying a long run in the competition this year.
This year’s competition promises to be one of the best in recent years. It will be the first time the competition will feature twenty-four teams and also hold in June. The Super Eagles will be making a return to the tournament after they missed the last two editions in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon respectively.
The Nigerian team finished top of a group that had South Africa, Libya and Seychelles with a game to spare. Gernot Rohr’s team will be hoping to replicate the success of the 2013 team when they travel to the Pyramids.
The Super Eagles won their third AFCON title in 2013 which was coincidentally the last time they qualified for the tournament prior to this year’s edition. The Super Eagles defeated Burkina Faso in the final at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg. Rohr’s men will be hoping they emulate the late Stephen Keshi squad when the tournament kicks off on June 21st. The Eagles have been drawn in a relatively easy group.
Nigeria were drawn against debutants Burundi and Madagascar with Guinea completing the lineup. The Super Eagles should have no problem seeing off ranked 68, 107 and 136 respectively on the FIFA rankings.
However, if Super Eagles are to win their fourth African title, Rohr may have to make some changes that may not go down well with the old guards. The German tactician released his provisional squad early this month, with most of his trusted servants making up the list.
— The NFF 🇳🇬 (@thenff) June 9, 2019
The likes of Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, John Mikel Obi and William Troost Ekong all made the provisional list. While it’s understandable why Rohr has decided to stick with the oldies, the former Auxerre manager will have to make some tough decisions when the tournament kicks off proper.
One of the many decisions that Rohr will have to make is to drop Leon Balogun from the starting line up. The German-born Nigerian made his debut for the Super Eagles in 2014, but it was not until Rohr’s appointment that he became a regular.
The former Mainz star has formed a strong partnership with William Troost Ekong and it has been a success. The two’s partnership ensured Nigeria conceded just four goals in the World Cup qualifiers. The Super Eagles were drawn against Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia in their World Cup qualifying group which makes Balogun and Ekong’s feat more impressive.
The Super Eagles may have gone out in the group stages of last year’s World Cup, Balogun and Ekong gave good performances in the competition and that continued in Super Eagles qualification for AFCON. However, if the Super Eagles are to have a chance of success in Egypt, then it may be time for Rohr to drop Leon Balogun from the squad.
The 30-year-old made just five league appearances for Brighton this season, three of which came as substitutes. With Balogun lacking game time, it could be a huge risk if Rohr decides to stick with the famous Oyinbo wall in Egypt.
Balogun managed just 831 minutes this season and that’s not good enough to earn a start for a country like Nigeria who are one of the favourites going into the tournament. Although, there’s this popular saying that goes “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, it may not apply for the Super Eagles going into the tournament.
Nigeria will be facing the likes of Morroco, Egypt and Ivory Coast in the competition. These are countries that have world-class stars like Ziyech, Salah, Pepe and Zaha in their ranks, which means Rohr cannot afford to take chances by naming someone who has managed just eight appearances this season in the starting line up.
To be honest, it’s difficult for a manager to break a trusted partnership and that can be seen with Balogun’s situation at Brighton. The Nigerian international failed to break the Seagull’s defensive pairing of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk. However, Brighton’s situation is different from the Super Eagles.
The Seagulls best defenders are Duffy and Dunk, and also have a good understanding of the Premier League. But that’s not the case for Balogun in the Super Eagles, he’s not the best defender available and will not get into the starting line up based on performances this season.
The honour of the best defender for Super Eagles right now belongs to Kenneth Omeruo and that’s why Rohr should take the decision to partner the Chelsea loanee with Ekong in Egypt.
Following a slow start this season, Omeruo has turned out to be one of the best players for Leganes this season making 27 appearances for the Los Pepineros. The 25-year old never let his side down and his performances have earned calls from the Leganes faithful to make his deal permanent.
With Omeruo in this sort of form going into the Nations Cup, it’s hard to see why Rohr shouldn’t trust him ahead of Leon Balogun. Aside from the fact he has more matches under his belt than the half cast, the former Ado Den Hag also have the experience of playing in the Nations Cup. Not only does he have experience of playing in the competition, but he’s also a former winner.
The 25-year-old was part of the Super Eagles squad that won the 2013 edition playing a major part. The African Cup of Nations is a different ball game to that of European football Leon Balogun is familiar with, although some will say he has enough experience of African football having played in the qualifiers.
But the fact still remains Omeruo have the experience of playing in the competition and also winning it. And with him heading into the competition in a better form than the former Mainz defender, He should be the one to partner Ekong in the heart of Super Eagle defence unless Nigeria are just going to Egypt to make up numbers.