Key questions for Nigeria coach Finidi George ahead of World Cup qualifiers

Nigeria go into June's 2026 World Cup qualifiers with the understanding that failing to secure victories against South Africa and Benin Republic could jeopardize their chances of qualifying for the global football event.

The team currently holds the third spot in Group C, having accumulated two points from their lackluster draws against Lesotho and Zimbabwe in November 2023 under coach Jose Peseiro.

Those results sparked outrage among Nigerians, who argued that the three-time African champions should have secured all available points given their strong reputation in Africa. 

While a World Cup berth is still attainable, the Super Eagles must avoid any further missteps.

After failing to qualify for Qatar 2022, coach Finidi George is determined to lead Nigeria to their seventh World Cup appearance. However, he faces crucial questions that must be addressed before the decisive fixtures against Hugo Broos' Bafana Bafana and Gernot Rohr's Squirrels.

Who will replace Osimhen as Nigeria’s number nine?

The news that reigning African Player of the Year Victor Osimhen will miss Nigeria’s June games is enough to cause panic among any Super Eagles fan.

Although the cause of the fitness concern is unknown, the Nigeria Football Federation reports that the Napoli goal machine is expected to be sidelined for at least four weeks.

Osimhen’s absence raises a crucial question: who should be deployed as the Super Eagles’ top striker against Bafana Bafana and the Squirrels?

There’s no doubt that Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman and Bayer Leverkusen’s Victor Boniface are having standout seasons, but can they fill the void left by the country's third all-time leading goal scorer?

Deciphering who should take on the goal-scoring duties will undoubtedly play a crucial role in determining how far the Eagles can fly as the competition for a World Cup ticket intensifies.

Does Okoye deserve his starting spot back?

Maduka Okoye's international future was uncertain after his costly mistake in Nigeria's 1-0 round of 16 loss to Tunisia at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

As a result, he was replaced by Francis Uzoho as the starter, and the rise of Stanley Nwabali led to him being excluded from the Super Eagles squad for the 2023 AFCON held in Cote d'Ivoire. 

Despite this setback, he made a comeback to the international scene, propelled by his impressive displays at Serie A club Udinese.

“I am very happy to return to the national team. It is a great honour for me and my family to play for Nigeria,” he was quoted by his club’s website.

The 24-year-old played a crucial role as Fabio Cannavaro’s team went unbeaten for five games, solidifying his reputation as a dependable goalkeeper.

Okoye’s impressive form will surely make coach George reconsider his options. Perhaps, he might be tempted to place his trust in Okoye for the goalkeeper position, especially considering Nwabali has only managed to keep a clean sheet in Chippa United's last seven matches across all competitions.

Although the former Watford player has shown that he's still a top goalkeeper, it's ultimately up to the Nigerian technical team to decide whether he'll reclaim his position as the number one goalkeeper or continue accepting a role on the bench.

Who's taking up the left-back position?

One notable discussion point upon the release of the Super Eagles' squad by the Nigeria Football Federation was the lack of a left-back.

Nigeria has historically boasted exceptional talent in the left-back position, with players like Ben Iroha, Celestine Babayaro, Taye Taiwo, and Elderson Echiejile making significant contributions over the years.

Currently, the situation doesn't appear as hopeful, as the 2013 African champions have had to try out four different players (Ola Aina, Zaidu Sanusi, Bruno Onyemaechi, and Jamilu Collins) in the left-back position during their last four international matches.

Surprisingly, none of these players made the 23-man squad for various reasons, leaving the starting spot wide open.

Osimhen's injury opened up a spot in the squad for Enugu Rangers left-back Kenneth Igboke. However, considering the significance of the upcoming matches, the 23-year-old might not get a chance to play.

Bright Osayi-Samuel and Chidozie Awaziem are the only realistic options for this role, and more twists and turns are likely as coach George decides on his starting left-back.

Can Super Eagles cope without star players?

Solomon Kwambe, a former Nigeria international, hit the nail on the head when he told that the country's World Cup aspirations hinge on the availability of key players.

Certainly, coach Finidi George can't be blamed for the absence of regular players in the matches against South Africa and Benin Republic.

The Super Eagles will have to make do without Moses Simon, Nathan Tella, Osimhen, Bruno Onyemaechi, Zaidu Sanusi, Tyronne Ebuehi, Kenneth Omeruo, Ola Aina and Joe Aribo.

Of course, no team can thrive without these players who would undoubtedly secure a spot in the starting lineup every week when they're fit. 

That being said, can the coach still achieve positive results with the players he has at his disposal?



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