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Nigeria Looking To Build On World Cup Display In AFCON Qualifiers

A young Nigerian side captured the world's imagination in the World Cup
A young Nigerian side captured the world's imagination in the World Cup

It wasn’t the most successful of World Cups for the African nations as none of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, or Nigeria managed to qualify for the knockout stages. There were, however, positives to take from the tournament, especially for Senegal and Nigeria who were unlucky not to escape their respective groups.

It was an encouraging display from Nigeria, but disappointing nonetheless as they finished third in Group D. They went out to an Argentina side inspired by Lionel Messi’s excellent opening goal and Marcos Rojo’s late winner, and were beaten in their opening game by Croatia, who have gone on to make it to the final.

There is some solace in the fact they were ultimately eliminated by one of the best players in the world and a side who have gone all the way, and there is also comfort in some of the performances, especially those of their midfield trio.

John Obi Mikel, Wilfred Ndidi, and Oghenekaro Etebo were one of the tournament's more impressive and balanced midfield units, and though Mikel is approaching the twilight of his career, at 31 he should still be around for their next tournament — the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

Qualification for this competition is already underway, with Nigeria having played their first game way back in June 2017 when they lost 2-0 to South Africa. The young side have moved on since this defeat, and can look to the rest of the campaign with a more positive outlook under German boss Gernot Rohr.

They will hope for more performances like the one which saw them defeat a stubborn Iceland side in Russia, when Ahmed Musa was able to show his class with two excellent goals.

But Nigeria are more than just Musa, and in the shape of Etebo and Ndidi they have two promising midfielders. Aged 22 and 21 respectively, the pair will both ply their trade in England this season, with the former having signed for Championship side Stoke City this summer.

Etebo was named Most Promising Talent of the Year at the CAF Awards in 2016, and the move to the Championship club with eyes on a Premier League return is the next step in his development. While Musa’s goals caught the eye and ultimately gave the side their win against Iceland, it was Etebo’s dominant midfield display which laid the foundations.

Ndidi is part of a Leicester side who have now settled in the middle of the Premier League table, and he arrived midway through the season after the club achieved their shock title win. 

The young duo will be a key part of Nigeria’s AFCON qualifying campaign, and they’ll be looking to return to winning ways when the games resume early in September.

Despite the loss in the opening game the Super Eagles will expect to defeat the two other teams in the group, Seychelles and Libya, and they will also get a chance for revenge against South Africa when the teams meet again in November.

Two teams will progress from this qualifying group, and Rohr’s side will be favourites to top it despite their poor start. 

24-year-old centre back William Troost-Ekong believes the experience in Russia will be vital for a side who were the youngest at the tournament.

"You need a tournament like this just to learn what it is like to play at this level, under this pressure, in front of the whole world,” he told the BBC.

"Hopefully by the next time we get to a World Cup, and if we can be part of that with all the players [who played in Russia], it will be nothing new to us and it might be easier for us to perform at a higher level."

A successful AFCON campaign could provide another springboard for these players, who are already thinking about qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

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