AFCON: Pressure On Osimhen As Injury Hits Eagles’ Camp
African footballer of the year, Victor Osimhen, was always Nigeria’s biggest hope coming into the Cup of Nations, but there is even more pressure on his shoulders after the withdrawal due to injury of fellow goal-scorer Victor Boniface.
The Super Eagles begin their AFCON campaign in Ivory Coast against Equatorial Guinea on Sunday before also facing the hosts and outsiders, Guinea-Bissau, in Group A.
Nigeria is looking to win a fourth Cup of Nations, which would see them draw level with the tally of rivals Ghana, and their attacking armada is what made them appear genuine contenders to go all the way.
Osimhen, 25, won the African Player of the Year award off the back of his brilliant form in Napoli’s run to the Serie A title.
He scored 26 goals for his club last season to become one of the most coveted forwards in world football, although he has struggled in comparison in this campaign, netting only eight times.
Osimhen also struck 10 times in AFCON qualifying, even if seven of his goals came against minnows Sao Tome and Principe.
This is a big tournament for him after he hardly featured as Nigeria finished third at the 2019 AFCON and sat out the last edition two years ago due to a combination of a facial injury and a bout of Covid.
“I want to win the AFCON with my country and write my own legacy. All the greats in Nigeria have a title to their name and to be mentioned in that space I must win it too,” he told Al Jazeera recently, as the Super Eagles aim to win the continental title for the first time since 2013.
– Attacking depth –
Boniface could have been his partner, with the 23-year-old excited about the AFCON after scoring 16 goals for Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen in the first half of the season.
But the forward, who made his international debut in September, will play no part in Ivory Coast after succumbing to a groin injury.
“Of course, for every player from Nigeria it is always their dream to represent their country — and win a trophy for their country,” Boniface told media including AFP in December.
Withdrawing so close to the kick-off is a huge blow for a player who has previously suffered two serious knee ligament injuries in his career.
His place in the squad has been taken by Terem Moffi, and the very fact the powerful Nice striker was not initially included shows how strong Nigeria is in attack.
“Every kid in Nigeria wants to be a goalscorer and wants to be noticed,” Super Eagles legend Jay-Jay Okocha told media including AFP in December.
“Also the fans might have something to do with it — we don’t forgive defenders if they score an own goal, but we forgive strikers if they miss a chance.”
Coach Jose Peseiro can also call on Samuel Chukwueze of AC Milan, Moses Simon of Nantes and Ademola Lookman, who is doing well at Atalanta in Italy this season.
Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City is expected to be fit too, but Nottingham Forest forward, Taiwo Awoniyi, has already been ruled out.
Then Real Sociedad striker, Umar Sadiq, got injured in Nigeria’s final warm-up friendly against Guinea, leading to a late call-up for giant forward Paul Onuachu, currently at Trabzonspor.
A team that has also lost Leicester midfielder Wilfred Ndidi appears to lack the necessary quality elsewhere, so Peseiro needs Osimhen to deliver the goals.
“We qualified with more goals scored (22) than any other side because we play one of the most attacking styles of football among all African national teams,” Peseiro told Portuguese daily O Jogo.
“I signed for Nigeria with the objective of being able to win the AFCON, because I knew all about the quality of the players, the history of the team and the possibility that we could be champions with the resources we have.”
Yet, Peseiro knows of the need to be wary of Nigeria’s group-stage opponents, including a Guinea-Bissau side who beat them 1-0 in qualifying in Abuja.
“The gap has been bridged when it comes to African football — we don’t really have minnows anymore,” warned Okocha.