Okechukwu, Awoniyi in as Nigeria battle Zambia in make or mar game
Nigeria must beat Zambia today if they desired a place in the semifinals of the on-going African U-23 Nations Cup holding in Egypt. A win will not put the U-23 Eagles automatically in the last four, but it would boost their chances of making it going into the last group game against South Africa.
Nigeria lost their first group game against Cote d’Ivoire to stand in their current precarious position where they must win all their remaining pool games to survive.And to this end, Coach Imama Amapakabo’s task has been boosted by the arrival of two key players, Captain Azubuike Okechukwu and star forward Taiwo Awoniyi.
The duo were conspicuously absent in the opening Group B match in which the U-23 Eagles could not find their range.It is assumed that Azubuike’s presence in the midfield will shore up Nigeria’s rear, while Awoniyi has the ability to convert chances to goals.
And Amapakabo agrees. “I am happy we now have Awoniyi and our captain, Azubuike. They are integral to the team and were influential in our qualifying matches. We will throw everything into the game against Zambia because we have left ourselves no choice at this point.
“I believe we have the team to not only overcome Zambia but go all the way in the tournament. We stumbled against the Ivoirians but we have learnt from that and we now look forward to rescuing our campaign against the Zambians and South Africans,” the coach told thenff.com.
Awoniyi, who plays for FSV Mainz 05 in the German top division, landed in Cairo late on Sunday, while Turkey–based Okechukwu, who also captained the Class of 2015 and to the gold medal in Senegal, arrived in the early hours of yesterday.
Okechukwu’s midfield partnership with Kelechi Nwakali was impactful in the handsome home wins over Libya and Sudan in the qualifying series, while Awoniyi got the important opener and also created chances in the defeat of Sudan that landed the Olympic Eagles in Egypt.
Nigeria take on Zambia at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo today and meet South Africa on Friday in their last group game.
Only the top three finishers at the U23 AFCON will qualify to fly Africa’s flag at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Tokyo, Japan next year.
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