With the Super Eagles crunch first leg match against Ghana in Kumasi just over 36 hours away, the team has flown to the Ghanaian city after holding a series of training sessions in Abuja.
One key issue that will be on the minds of Head Coach Augustine Eguavoen and his assistant Emmanuel Amuneke is the midfield position.
In the weeks leading up to the encounter, Eguavoen was bullish about his team, openly stating that he had his starting XI for the match all wrapped up, only for Wilfred Ndidi to pick up a season-ending injury against Rennes while playing for Leicester City in the UEFA Europa Conference League.
Apart from that unfortunate loss against Tunisia in Cameroon, the last time the Super Eagles lost a game coincided with the last time Ndidi was not part of the squad due to injury. The Leicester City man is arguably the most important midfielder at Eguavoen’s disposal, and his enforced absence means the experienced tactician must return to the drawing board.
In the match against Central African Republic in October 2021 in Lagos, former Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr started Brentford’s all-action midfielder Frank Onyeka alongside Joe Aribo in midfield, and while the 24-year-old did not have a bad game, it was evident that both men had not played together before then. Eguavoen has played with a double pivot since his appointment as coach and will surely continue with the trend.
They failed to drive the team forward and create from the central positions as the team passed the ball around with a lethargy that stemmed from the inability of the midfield to progress the ball. If this is the case against Ghana, Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey will have a field day.
Eguavoen reiterated his trust in one-cap Super Eagles midfielder Innocent Bonke, who was drafted in as a replacement for the stricken Ndidi, but the coach is not expected to start the FC Lorient midfielder.
Super Eagles best bet in midfield is to play Aribo and Onyeka together from the start. Under Eguavoen, Aribo was one of the side’s best performers at AFCON due to his ability to pick up the ball in half-spaces and make positive contributions to the team’s overall play. Combining this quality with Onyeka’s tenacity (he is nicknamed Freekick Frank because of how much he tackles and commits fouls) will severely limit how much the Ghanaians can play through the middle of the park.
Eguavoen also has the option of playing West Brom defender Semi Ajayi alongside Aribo, who is almost certain to start, but the former Arsenal youth player did not exactly shine in the position under Rohr. Watford’s Oghenekaro Etebo will be a useful asset to bring off the bench due to his lack of match fitness. He has played only 17 minutes since picking up an injury in September 2021.
With their captain Andre Ayew ruled out following his red card at AFCON, Ghana’s most important player against the Super Eagles will likely be Arsenal’s Partey. Denying him of any chance to influence the game will be important to Eguavoen and his boys over both games.