Behold, Eagles 13 AFCON Debutants

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With the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations just five days away, football fans across thecontinent are in anxious mood to watch their star footballers replicate their world-class performances abroad on African soil.

Three-time African champions Super Eagles will be going to the event with a host of unfamiliar faces, with 13 of the 28-man list set for their AFCON debut in Cameroon.

Correspondent Ebenezer Bajela takes a look at the new faces who will be competing at Africa’s showpiece football event for the first time ever…

1) Kelechi Iheanacho

Unbelievable, but Iheanacho is on this list of AFCON debutants! The Leicester City forward won the U-17 World Cup in 2013 before a high-profile move to English giants Manchester City a year later.

He made his senior debut for the country in 2015 against Eswatini in a 2018 World Cup qualifier, but the Eagles absence at the 2015 and 2017 editions of AFCON and a loss of form in 2019 all conspired to ensure he’s not had his Nations Cup bow, over six years after tasting international football at senior level.

The 25-year-old has rediscovered his form and looks a likely starter in the Eagles attack when the competition kicks off.
2) Joe Aribo

Glasgow Rangers in-form midfield man Aribo’s first taste of senior international football came in a international friendly game against Ukraine in 2019.

And it didn’t take long for the Rangers star to announce himself on the international stage, as he scored the opening goal in the 2-2 draw against the Europeans.

He’ll also score against Brazil in his next game for the Eagles and has been a regularever since, winning 11 caps.

The 25-year-old is in the form of his life for Rangers and is sure to play an influential role in Austin Eguavoen’s side.
3) Kelechi Nwakali

Kelechi Nwakali, remember him? He finished the 2015 U-17 World Cup as the Golden Ball winner, with Victor Osimhen claiming the Golden Boot with 10 goals.

However, whereas Osimhen is one of the most in-demand strikers in world football at the moment, Nwakali has rather fallen off the world football radar.

Indeed, the 23-year-old is now at Spanish second division side Huesca.

The reasons why a player may struggle to live up to ‘wonderkid’ status are many. Poor attitude, injuries, a poor relationship with a manager, the wrong move at the wrong time, the pressures of expectation – the list goes on.

Nwakali ticks some of the boxes above, but that does not take away the on-field ability of this supremely talented midfielder, whose first club in Europe was Arsenal but failed to meet expectations at the London club.

He is yet to play a Grade A game at senior level for the Eagles but he reminded fans of the stuff he’s made off when he thrilled at the Uyo stadium as a makeshift Eagles side lost 3-2 to a Fernando Torres-inspired Atletico Madrid.
4) Chidera Ejuke

Ejuke, ranked the third-best dribbler in the world behind Adama Traore and Nahuel Luján, will be one of the players to watch out for in the Eagles, with his pace and trickery from the wings.

The CSKA Moscow winger made his Nigeria debut in a 1-1 stalemate versus Tunisia in 2020. He brought in some spark from the wings, which was absent from the national team under sacked coach Gernot Rohr.

5) Sadiq Umar

Umar is attracting attention from top clubs across Europe, despite currently plying his trade with Spanish second division outfit Almeria.

For two consecutive seasons, the tall striker has been in impressive form for Almeria. He bagged 20 league goals in the 2020/21 season, while this term he has been involved in 16 goals in 21 outings, scoring nine and assisting another seven.

With his current form, the 24-year-old is among the frontmen expected to fill the massive void left by the absence of Osimhen and Watford striker Emmanuel Dennis.

6) Maduka Okoye

At 22 years of age, Okoye is the youngest player in the Nigerian squad for the AFCON and is expected to man the posts when the tournament kicks off in Cameroon on Sunday.

Okoye made his debut for Nigeria as a substitute in a friendly match against Brazil on October 13, 2019, keeping a clean sheet.

Injuries and inconsistency of other goalkeepers gave the German-born shot-stopper a chance to lay claim to the Eagles number one position and he’s held on.
Fine performances at Dutch club Sparta Rotterdam earned him a deal at EPL side Watford last year and he looks set to continue as the Eagles’ numero uno in goal at the showpiece.

7) Taiwo Awoniyi

There was a huge sigh of relief amongst most of the country’s football faithful when Awoniyi received his first call up to Rohr’s squad in a 1-0 defeat to Central African Republic in Lagos.

It had been long overdue. The powerful striker had won the U-17 World Cup in 2013, but failed to make a single appearance for Liverpool in six years, and had to make do with loan deals away from Anfield.

However, a permanent deal at Union Berlin last summer, changed the fortunes of the frontman, who has been in impressive form, scoring 14 goals in 27 games in all competitions.

Awoniyi’s followers believe he could be the solution to Nigeria’s striking dilemma in Cameroon, following the withdrawal of Osimhen.

Will he get the chance to prove himself? Will he grab the chance, if he gets it? These are questions Awoniyi will answer in Cameroon.

8) Frank Onyeka

Onyeka has enjoyed a fine start to his EPL sojourn with Brentford, and has four caps to his name after making his debut versus Algeria in October 2020 in Austria.

Injury to Oghenekaro Etebo means the midfielder will most likely make his first AFCON appearance for Nigeria in Cameroon.

9) Peter Olayinka
Slavia Prague striker Olayinka may lack experience at the international level with just one cap, but he is no stranger to playing at the highest, having plied his trade regularly in the Champions League and Europa, Europe’s biggest club competitions.

At some point Albania approached the tall forward to play for them. If Olayinka had agreed, he would have been the first foreigner to represent the Albanian national team, but he opted to bide his time with the Eagles.

The 26-year-old will be hoping to make his first competitive appearance for Nigeria at the AFCON, after his debut versus Brazil in a friendly in 2019.

10) Tyronne Ebuehi

Venezia defender Ebuehi will be making his AFCON debut after injury robbed him of the chance in 2019, as the Eagles finished in third place.

The 26-year-old was in Nigeria’s squad for the World Cup in Russia, where he came on as a substitute in the second half of a 2–0 victory over Iceland.

With just a few days to the AFCON, Ebuehi is now poised to make his long-awaited AFCON debut.

11) Zaidu Sanusi

Ironically, the Porto man made his first appearance for Nigeria in the qualifiers heading to this tournament.

It was not a debut he would have hoped for as the Eagles blew a four-goal lead against Sierra Leone in Benin City to draw 4-4.

With the left-back short of options, Zaidu will be the preferred man in that position, giving him the opportunity to impress the technical crew and fans alike.

12) Olisa Ndah
Following an outstanding 2020/21 season with NPFL side, Akwa United, where he won the league title, his first silverware, South Africans Orlando Pirates announced the signing of Ndah.

The 23-year-old has been a key part of the club and has made 13 appearances in the DStv Premiership.

He was one of the surprise inclusions after Eguavoen released his 28-man squad on Christmas Day.

13) John Noble

Just as Ndah, Noble was part of the home-based Eagles that suffered the heavy defeat against Mexico last year and he is the only NPFL player listed for the AFCON tournament by Eguavoen.

The Enyimba goalkeeper faces strong competition from Okoye, Akpeyi and Uzoho.

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