Super Eagles face a big test in Calabar where they are scheduled to engage the Harambee Stars of Kenya in a Group F Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifier at the U.J Esuene Stadium.
According to FIFA, the winners of the 10 groups will qualify for Round Three.
“The teams will be paired into five home-and-away ties,” FIFA says in its official website.
“The matches will likely be played between October 11-15 and November 11-15 2013. The five teams that win their respective ties will qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”
The Eagles made many pundits and commentators eat their words after they overcame a shaky start at the South Africa 2013 Africa Cup of Nations to win their third African title on February 10 in Johannesburg.
Nigerians, who were made to wait for 19 years to see their team lift the trophy again, have high hopes for the team and expect Stephen Keshi and his troops to continue their winning streak.
The Eagles, who are placed 30th in the latest FIFA rankings will look to keep their Brazil 2014 dream alive when they welcome the Harambee Stars, who are ranked 126th.
The Eagles beat Kenya home and away to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Nigeria won the first leg 3-0 in Abuja on June 7, 2009 and went ahead to beat the Kenya at home 3-2 on November 14, 2009.
But Keshi, who is said to be having a selection headache ahead of the tricky encounter, will aim to avoid the banana peel.
The Pharaohs of Egypt failed to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea after winning the 2010 edition in Angola. And 2012 winners Chipolopolo of Zambia crashed out in the group stage of South Africa 2013.
The Eagles will be working hard to avoid becoming the latest high-profile casualty of a painful slump in continental football.
Keshi will rely on the majority of the players that helped the country win the trophy in South Africa for the encounter that may see the scorer of the goal in the 1-0 defeat of surprise finalist Burkina Faso in the final Sunday Mba pushing for goals.
In the absence of Emmanuel Emenike, Seattle Sounders new signing Obafemi Martins could get the nod to lead the Eagles’ attack. Talismanic Spartak Moscow striker Emenike, who emerged as the highest scorer of the tournament in South Africa with four goals, has not regained full fitness after he suffered a hamstring injury during the championship.
Celtic defence ace Efe Ambrose is suspended for the game after he picked up consecutive yellow cards in the World Cup qualifying games against Namibia and Malawi in June last year and his place in the right-back is up for grabs. But Sporting Braga’s Elderson Echiejile is guaranteed a starting role on the left-back.
With Holland-based Kenneth Omeruo’s position guaranteed in the heart of the defence, the problem will be his partner.
Egwueke Azubuike’s return to full fitness is said to be posing a selection problem for Keshi, who will have to choose between the Warri Wolves player and Godfrey Oboabona. Azubuike was ahead of the Sunshine Stars defender in the pecking order before he took ill during the team’s preparation for South Africa 2013 in Portugal and consequently missed action in the tournament.
Despite the Nigerian camp bubbling over with quality players, Kenya coach Adel Amrouche insists the Harambee Stars have the resources to pull off one of the biggest shocks in football by beating the African champions at home and spoil their victory party.
The Belgian has been fighting fires on a number of fronts, with some of the clubs refusing to cooperate by releasing their players for camping and Inter Milan’s Mcdonald Mariga withdrawing from the match due to injury.
Amrouche opted to travel to Nigeria with Celtic midfielder Victor Wanyama, despite his fitness worries. Wanyama picked up an injury in the Champions league return leg against Juventus. Prolific Gor Mahia striker Paul Mungai Kiongera ruled himself out of the match, meaning the former Burundi coach is left with France-based Dennis Oliech as the only reliable striker.
Amrouche says he is aware that the Harambee Stars have yet to beat the Eagles but insists the story will be different this time around.
“If the players are in the right state of mind I am sure that we can beat Nigeria, home or away, and as we prepare for the game I am confident that we will impress,” the Belgian was quoted as saying.
AC Ajaccio’s Oliech’s echoed his coach’s sentiment, saying Nigeria are beatable.
“The pressure will be on Nigeria, especially having won the Africa Cup of Nations trophy,” the 28-year-old told Goal.
“We will go into the match as the underdogs. Everybody will be looking at how Nigeria will perform, this being their first competitive match after the Africa Cup of Nations.
“All we need to do is to prepare well and there is every possibility that we can get a positive result.
“The players are in good shape especially after we beat Libya last month in Tunisia. We just need to maintain the same momentum and spirit.”
On his part, Wanyama said the Harambee Stars are in the country to take full points from the qualifier.
“We are a good team and will do our best,”SuperSport quoted the player said to be on the radar of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City as saying during the week.
“The pressure is on Nigeria, they are the champions. We come into this match as the underdogs and football nowadays doesn’t recognise that, anything can happen and we can beat them.
“We have never beaten them but we have a young side that can get a result out of them. The coach has had time to prepare and I enjoyed my first day working with him, we’ll learn a lot from him.”
Former Nigeria coach and captain Christian Chukwu, who coached Kenya in 1998, warned the Eagles not to underrate their opponents.
The Nigeria ’80 Africa Cup of Nations winner urged the Eagles to play the match as a cup final.
“I’m happy that Keshi has named the majority of our top players for the encounter,” the former Enugu Rangers captain told our correspondent on the telephone during the week.
“The match is no piece of cake for us because the Kenyans have the energy to play for two hours without being tired and we should take the game seriously. I believe our young players will be able to subdue them. They can make the match easy for themselves by taking their chances.
“I don’t think they are capable of denying us full points from the match. We should concern ourselves with a victory and not the scoreline. I don’t care if we beat them by a lone goal, providing we qualify for the World Cup.”
Chukwu’s fellow Nigeria ’80 winner Henry Nwosu tipped the Eagles to overrun the East Africans, who have not progressed beyond the first round of the Africa Cup of Nations in their five-time appearance at the championship – 1972,1988,1990,1992 and 2004.
However, Nwosu warned the Eagles against complacency, saying the Kenyans could pull off a shocker in the encounter.
The former Eagles captain said, “We must not underrate a side like Kenya. Our best players should be paraded for the encounter. I don’t care if Keshi decides to play the domestic league players or the foreign-based for the match; all I want is victory.”