U23 AFCON: Nigeria a win away from semis

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A win over Egypt on Wednesday evening in Mbour will seal Nigeria’s qualification to the last four of the U23 AFCON in Senegal as well as set the tone for a 2017 AFCON double-header between the two countries in March.

Nigeria are top of Group B after a 3-2 win over Mali and another three points will guarantee them passage to the knockout stage of the tournament, which also doubles as a qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“Wins in our first two matches will qualify us for the semi-finals and that is what we are targeting,” declared Nigeria coach Samson Siasia.

But on Sunday Siasia’s team almost marred a bright start to the U23 AFCON when they capitulated in the second half against Mali after going 3-0 up in the first period.

Siasia admitted his Dream Team VI were only lucky to win and move to the top of Group B after Algeria and Egypt played out a 1-1 draw in the first game in Mbour.

Egypt, who are missing key players including Al Ahly midfielder Saleh Gomaa through injury, created the better chances against regional rivals Algeria, but failed to finish off in front of goal.

Both Nigeria and Egypt were to have met in September at the All Africa Games in Congo Brazzaville before the Olympic Pharaohs pulled out so as to focus on the U23 AFCON.

Interestingly, both teams clashed in a final qualifier for the 1996 Olympics which Nigeria narrowly shaded on their way to making history as the first African team to strike Olympic Gold in Atlanta thereafter.

Cash problems aside, Siasia will most certainly ring changes in his defence after a shambolic showing in the second half against Mali on Sunday.

Kano Pillars defender Zaharadeen Bello is most likely to lose his starting place to the more experienced Chizoba Amaefule after he was to blame for Mali’s second goal for ball watching.

Skipper Azubuike Okechukwu also struggled in midfield, but in two-goal hero Junior Ajayi and flying winger Stanley Dimgba Dream Team have two match winners.

Dimgba, for one, showed his performance for league runners-up Warri Wolves this past season was not a fluke as he ripped apart the Malian defence at will on Sunday.

This game could well be a dress rehearsal for next year’s AFCON qualifier between Nigeria and Egypt as several players from both sides could still play a role in March.

Kick-off time on Wednesday is 7pm at the Caroline Faye Stadium in Mbour.

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