JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Nigeria are set to end five years of African Nations Championship (CHAN) failure by reaching the finals for the first time this weekend.
Ousted by Ghana and minnows Niger in previous qualifying competitions, the ‘Super Eagles’ defend a 4-1 lead away to Ivory Coast Saturday.
While coach Stephen Keshi preaches caution, it would be the biggest shock of the six-year Championship for home-based stars if they fail to make the 2014 finals in South Africa.
“We cannot afford to take our feet off the pedal because we won the first match,” said the coach who led the full senior team to the Africa Cup of Nations title in Soweto last February.
“The Ivorians are a very good side and we must prepare thoroughly for the second leg or face the prospect of losing out on Nations Championship qualification again.”
While the first-leg score three weeks ago suggests a lop-sided game, the Ivorians had two players red carded when trailing 3-1 in Kaduna.
Keshi admitted to Nigerian reporters that he was concerned that his team could score only once when they had a two-man numerical advantage.
The policy of giving local stars exposure at the highest level — eight were among the Confederations Cup squad in Brazil during June — gives Nigeria a powerful CHAN line-up.
Midfielder Sunday Mba, the Cup of Nations final match-winner against Burkina Faso, bagged a brace against the Ivorians with Gambo Mohammed and Ifeanyi Benjamin also on target.
Goalkeeper Chigozie Agbim, defenders Godfrey Oboabona, Azubike Egwuekwe and Solomon Kwambe and midfielder Emeka Eze are others from the Confederations Cup in the CHAN squad.
An Ivory Coast senior squad heavily reliant on foreign-based talent means only goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare from the Cup of Nations squad is available for the CHAN qualifier.
Ethiopia are another country hoping to make the Nations Championship finals for the first time, although they are less favourably placed than Nigeria having defeated Rwanda only 1-0 in Addis Ababa.
Sewnet Bishaw, who took the Cup of Nations team to the finals last January after a 31-year absence, is confident of completing the task in Kigali.
“I promise that we will beat Rwanda in their backyard — I do not foresee any serious problems having watched them in the first encounter,” he boasted.
Only three of the 23-strong Cup of Nations squad are based abroad, leaving Bishaw with a wealth of experience to call on, including midfield dribbler Shimelis Bekele.
A 1-0 victory in Tanzania through a goal from defender Denis Iguma has placed Uganda in pole position to reach a second consecutive Nations Championship tournament.
But the ‘Cranes’ have often fallen at the final hurdle in various qualifying tournaments and Serb coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic remains wary of his east African neighbours.
“We got only the passports for South Africa by winning the first leg — now we need to collect the visas by winning the return match in Kampala,” he said.
Uganda will lack both first-leg strikers with Tony Odour sidelined by a pulled muscle and Patrick Edema in Portugal for trials with a third-tier club.
There are seven second-leg fixtures with final places up for grabs and Mali are well placed having beaten Guinea 3-1 at home, as are Sudan after forcing a 1-1 draw in Burundi.
But Burkina Faso and 2009 champions Democratic Republic of Congo face tough tasks against Niger and Congo Brazzaville respectively having built just one-goal home leads.
There are also four first-leg fixtures with Cameroon belatedly hosting Gabon after the lifting this week of a FIFA ban on the country for state interference.
Southern region fixtures between Botswana and Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia and Mauritius and Zimbabwe complete the 11-match schedule.