Nigeria will welcome South Africa for a vital Group E clash in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers when they meet in Uyo on Saturday, June 10. The match is set for the Akwa Ibom Stadium, with kick-off at 16h00 GMT.
Neither the Super Eagles nor Bafana Bafana qualified for the last AFCON in Gabon earlier this year, meaning a place in the 2019 finals is a major priority for both – at least until the 2018 World Cup qualifiers resume.
While Nigeria have had German coach Gernot Rohr in charge of their team for the better part of a year, South Africa will see this match as the start of a new era under Stuart Baxter.
The Englishman is entering his second spell in charge of Bafana Bafana and immediately faces a huge challenge in overseeing an attempted return to the AFCON.
Yet there is a sense of deja vu for SA, who were in a very similar position ahead of the qualifiers for the 2015 tournament: ‘Shakes’ Mashaba had just taken charge of the team (for his second permanent tenure) and they found themselves in a challenging group alongside Nigeria.
What followed was an unbeaten campaign in which Bafana topped the group, secured qualification for the AFCON finals and ensured the Super Eagles didn’t make the cut.
Yet Baxter and Bafana would be foolish to expect a repeat – certainly not without some serious hard work and the odd slice of luck. And this Nigeria team is far improved from the one which missed out on the 2015 (and 2017) finals.
For a start, Rohr has brought a greater sense of organisation and discipline to the team, which has mostly not compromised the natural attacking flair Nigeria have always been renowned for.
For proof of their improvement, look no further than the Russia 2018 qualifiers, where Rohr’s Eagles are top of the ‘Group of Death’ thanks to impressive wins over Zambia and Algeria.
And they also racked up a big 3-0 win over Togo in a friendly last week, though Rohr reckons they have plenty to work on ahead of meeting South Africa: “Our team is young and has a good future, [but] there is a lot of work to do still,” he told Kwesé ESPN.
“We had a good camp in Corsica on the invitation of their association. Between the mountain and the sea, we could work well with our four local [in Nigeria’s domestic league] players and new ones like [Henry] Onyekuru and [Mikel] Agu.
“And we also had excellent conditions in Paris. Nice pitches and a beautiful stadium where we got to work on two different organizations, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 and give competitive football to the players who needed it.”
Nigeria have generally bossed South Africa in senior football, with the Super Eagles claiming seven victories (compared to just one for Bafana Bafana) in 12 official meetings. SA have never beaten Nigeria in a competitive match, with the teams playing to draws in their meetings in the 2015 qualifiers.