The Super Eagles will be playing their first Africa Cup of Nations match since 2013 when they face debutants Burundi at the Alexandria Stadium on Saturday night. The Nigerians have missed the last two AFCON editions.
Coming up against a side making their first appearance, Nigeria are seen as favorites heading into the tie and will be under pressure to deliver against a quick and high pressing Burundian side in their first ever meeting.
Burundi qualified as runners up in their group and they did so without losing a match winning three games and picking a similar number of draws. They promise to be no pushovers and have vowed to put their best performance.
Building up to AFCON, Burundi played two friendly matches, drawing 1-1 with Algeria in their first game in Doha, Qatar before losing 2-1 to Tunisia in Rades courtesy of a late goal by Naim Sliti.
Nigeria who won the tournament in their last appearance in 2013 have reached 13 semi-finals in their last 15 appearances at the competition. Since 1982, they have never failed to make it past the group stages and their worst performance since then was a quarter final exit in 2008 when the tournament was hosted in Ghana.
Coached by German Gernot Rhor, they will look to continue the tradition and winning their opening game against Burundi will be a key step in ensuring they keep their hopes of a fourth African title alive. The Nigerians have always posted mixed results in their opening day matches, but a majority of them have been won.
Their worst ever day one performance was in 1990 when they lost 5-1 to Algeria.
In their build up matches, Nigeria drew 0-0 with Zimbabwe and lost 1-0 to Senegal
Players to watch:
Cedric Amissi – The pacy winger has scored in each of the last four games in national team colors and played a starring role in the team’s qualification. His creativity and eye for goal should be a threat for the Nigerian backline.
Abdul Razak Fiston - The JS Kabilye forward scored six goals in qualification and was the second top scorer in the qualifiers after Nigeria’s Odion Ighalo.
Saido Berahino: Berahino switched allegiance to Burundi and has been rewarded with being handed the captain’s armband for the competition, taking over from Karim Nizigiyimana. As one of the most exposed players in the team, all eyes will be on Berahino to guide Les Hirondelles.
John Obi Mikel – The midfielder returns to the team for the first time since their World Cup campaign in Russia in 2018 and his leadership from the middle of the pack will always be crucial for the super eagles. He is among the only three players in the tournament to be playing at his second AFCON in Egypt having been with the squad in 2006.
Odion Ighalo – Having carried on his scoring form to Russia, the striker who scored seven goals during qualification will carry the burden of scoring goals for the Nigerians at the AFCON.
Alex Iwobi – The Arsenal man scored the goal that took Nigeria to the World Cup in Russia, but his pace and skill on the wing will be expected more when he makes his AFCON debut for Nigeria this year.
Pre-match quotes: What they said:
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr:
On whether his side is under pressure to win the title;
We are used to the pressure and the obligation to make results for three years now. We are cool with it and here is no stress from us. I think the most important thing is that we are happy that we are here after missing the last two editions.
It is an exciting tournament with 24 teams and it will be more difficult to win because there is one match more and all the big teams are here.
On their opening game against Burundi;
We have prepared for this match just like we prepare for all our games. For us humility is key and we can’t underrate any opponent. They were unbeaten in the qualifiers and I watched them in their last match against Tunisia and we have analyzed most of their videos and I can say they are not an easy team.
We have a lot of respect for this team because they have the enthusiasm of a new comer who has nothing to lose and also, they can play football with some good organization. It will be a tough game for us but it will be very important for us to start with a win.
Captain John Obi Mikel
On how it feels returning to the team for the first time since the World Cup in Russia;
I have been away for a while but I was always in contact with the team, the coach the players and my assistant captains as well and I knew everything was going on okay. I believe we have a good team and we have prepared well for the tournament.
On Nigeria’s ambition for the tournament;
Everyone thinks we are the favorites but we don’t look at it that way. We want to focus on what we have to do. Pressure is always there and as professionals we have to deal with it. We have to know how to cope.
I hope we can play well and qualify from the group and start it off from there. Hope we can kick it and do great things. The last time we played we won.
Head coach Olivier Niyongabo:
On how he feels finally seeing his team playing at the AFCON;
It is great to be here and see the hard work that we have been putting in from a long time bear fruits. We are happy to get this experience as a team but we must focus on the first game and not the fact that it is our first time.
I want my players to do their best on the pitch and we represent our country in the best way possible.
On what he thinks about the group and being labeled as an underdog
We have two very experienced teams in the group plus us and Madagascar coming for the first time. But all of us have a right to be here and we worked so hard to achieve this. Coming in, we are all equals. It is a high level and we have prepared accordingly for it.
We played friendly games against tough teams Tunisia and Algeria and did well. We have the right to dream.
Captain, Saido Berahino:
On how he feels after being handed the armband for the AFCON;
As a young child, I always wanted to play for my country and when God gave me the chance to play for Burundi, I couldn’t say no. Yes, I have played for England at Under-16 and Under-21, but I always wanted to come in for Burundi.
It is such a massive honor for me captaining the team at the AFCON and there is so much responsibility on my shoulders but with the experience of course of playing in Europe I can pass down that to my teammates.
On Burundi’s underdog tag in the group:
We have been called underdogs right from the qualification and for us it is not a bother, actually for most of the players this is like a motivator for us. We are here to take a game at a time and go step by step.
We are under no pressure because no one expects anything from us. We will use this to our advantage.
On facing Nigeria in the opening game;
We have looked at their strengths and weaknesses over the period we have been preparing and we are ready for them. We have played good games in the build up against Tunisia and Nigeria and we will be going in with confidence.
Nigeria is a strong team but football is all about 90 minutes. Of course we will not let them walk all over us. The beautiful thing about this game is that there are lots of surprises and we are here for that.
Of course I won’t sit here and say we will be in the final but we are here to give our best.