By Tunde Eludini
The Super Eagles of Nigeria have already qualified for the Round of 16 at the ongoing 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). But they have a rare opportunity to match a feat they only attained during their first appearance at the finals in 1963.
If the Super Eagles do not concede at the Alexandria Stadium on Sunday against the Barea of Madagascar as occurred in their previous matches, it will be the first time Nigeria will emerge from an AFCON group phase expedition with a clean sheet in over 50 years.
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 the1-0 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 down the ladder if Guinea win well against Burundi and Madagascar 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 the 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.
The Acting President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Seyi Akinwunmi, told thenff.com: “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.”
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.
NIGERIA Vs MADAGASCAR Head-to-Head
7 Oct 2000: Madagascar 0 Nigeria 0 – Antananarivo (AFCON Qualifier)
2 June 2001: Nigeria 1 Madagascar 0 – Lagos (AFCON Qualifier)
5 Sept 2010: Nigeria 2 Madagascar 0 – Calabar (AFCON Qualifier)
3 Sept 2011: Madagascar 0 Nigeria 2 – Antananarivo (AFCON Qualifier)