Algeria and Nigeria lock horns at the Mohamed-Hamlaoui Stadium on Friday with nothing much to play for, apart from pride for the hosts following a disastrous qualifying campaign that saw them fail to live up to expectations as group favourites when the draws were made.
For the Super Eagles, the desire to end the series unbeaten has to drive them on in this heavyweight encounter. With both sides set to clash in Constantine, how do they match up against one another?
In goal for the Desert Warriors should be Abdelkadir Salhi, deputizing for the absent Rais M’Bolhi. With the veteran goalie missing from Rabah Madjer’s first squad, nothing is set in stone, however, and the goalkeeping slot is there for the taking. Faouzi Chaouchi and Chamseddine Rahmani would definitely fancy themselves to stake their claim between the sticks.
The Super Eagles have found solace in Ikechukwu Ezenwa since the unavoidable absence of Carl Ikeme.
The Ifeanyi Ubah stopper has handled what’s come at him with minimal fuss, and has looked the part for the West African giants.
Having already secured qualification, Gernot Rohr could opt for either Daniel Akpeyi or Francis Uzoho, giving either man the opportunity to stake a claim and challenge Ezenwa.
It’s a bit of a cliched line of thought now, but Akpeyi doesn’t inspire confidence when selected. His underwhelming performance in the Nations Cup qualifier against South Africa is still fresh in the memory, too, and it might be a while before he gets another game for the Super Eagles.
Uzoho meanwhile is a youngster whose burgeoning reputation has definitely caught the eye in recent weeks. Still relatively wet behind the years, though, the 18-year-old is unlikely to be thrown into the deep end by Rohr. Yet, with nothing at stake for the visitors, perhaps the German tactician could thrust him into the limelight.
Statistically, the Fennecs’ defence has been their Achilles heel, and shipping nine goals in five games is nowhere near good enough for a side of their quality.
It even makes for stranger reading when you take into account that the Algeria side tend to dominate possession in their games (they had 77% of the ball in their last home game against Zambia… yet lost!). Perhaps that has somewhat put them at a disadvantage as they’ve been open to the odd counter attack due to the defence being caught high up the pitch.
The Nigeria attack will be out to exploit this supposed weakness and expect them to be up for the battle.
With Victor Moses and Moses Simon set to miss out, Alex Iwobi and Henry Onyekuru could be deployed out wide.
Iwobi’s ability to play between the lines and find pockets of space in the channels would trouble the Greens’ backline, while Onyekuru will be deployed on the left flank, where he’s got the chance while in possession to either hug the touchline or cut in to his favorite right foot which gives him the option of finding a teammate with a pass or having a go himself.
With Anthony Nwakaeme expected to lead the line for the Super Eagles, the Algeria centre-backs could be in for a long afternoon.
The burly forward is a handful physically, but offers much more than just being a one-dimensional battering ram. The Hapoel Be’er Sheva forward’s link-up play is underrated and while he’ll always make himself available for the pass into feet, his lateral runs aimed at drawing people out of position with the objective of opening up a bit of room for his teammates to operate will be something to look out for.
It gets a bit more interesting in midfield for both sides, where Algeria’s Nabil Bentaleb is a player that can dictate the tempo of a game from deep.
With the North Africans expected to have the lion’s share of the ball, what instruction Rohr has to nullify him from controlling the game will certainly be under the microscope.
The Nigeria boss has mainly elected for a midfield trio of Mikel John Obi, Wilfred Ndidi and Ogenyi Onazi.
The latter, for all the criticism sent his way, will be a huge miss. Onazi’s tenacity and ball-winning skills are underrated, and together with Ndidi, gives the team a bit more solidity which in turn protects a defence that can be got at.
Rohr has often brought on Mikel Agu – a controller – in the last couple of games, but you’ve got to wonder if this game would be more suited to someone of the ilk of Oghenekaro Etebo. The midfielder has the legs to go up and down the pitch while offering a bit more creativity in the final third.
Up front, the trio of Islam Slimani, Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi are going to be a handful for the West Africans.
The FC Porto man especially will be a real threat with his pace, dribbling and, even more so, his impressive close control. He’s capable of picking out a pass, and Abdullahi Shehu will have his hands full if he’s to keep the fleet-footed wideman quiet.
Ola Aina is expected to play at left-back, and will be asked to do a job Mahrez in what will be his full debut. The Leicester City man likes to cut inside to his stronger left foot, and that’s something that may be to the advantage of the Chelsea loanee, who’s a right footer.
Slimani may not be setting the world alight, but he’s a handful on his day, and the duo of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong will need to stay touch tight to the forward, especially at set-pieces or from crosses.
With a little at stake going into this game, it may not be the most emotionally engaging affair, but it’s certainly got a few fascinating subplots, and it will be interesting to see how it all pans out.