Nigeria need to be at their best to beat resurgent Cameroon in CAF qualifying
Cameroon's African Nations Cup win this past weekend did more than stun the continent. Marked down as no-hopers, even by themselves, after seven key players chose to put their club careers over their country, the Indomitable Lions showed gritty resolve, stern determination and supreme confidence in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts to reach and win the final against record seven-time champions Egypt.
"After we qualified, the first objective was to make it out of the group stage," Cameroon captain Bernard Moukandjo told ESPN FC. "But when you're a competitor, you have to have a winning spirit. And when we got out of the group stage, we just wanted to win every game."
It is a triumph that has instilled a sense of self belief in a team which previously looked almost irreparably fractured in multiple places. A triumph that appears to have marked a coming of age of a young group of Cameroon players who previously would have seen themselves mostly as placeholders. What it also did was put a different complexion on the coming World Cup qualifiers which re-start in August.
Nigeria with six points, currently lead Group B ahead of Cameroon on two points. Algeria and Zambia have a single point each. On the face of it, this looks almost a home run for Nigeria who need only to win their two remaining home games to reach Russia 2018.
Prior to Cameroon's Nations Cup victory, a home victory for a young and brilliant Nigeria team was almost a foregone conclusion. Gernot Rohr's retooled, young Super Eagles looked skilled, quick and lethal.
If there is one question mark about the squad, it is in defence, where players are struggling to stay fit enough to string a run of games together. Leon Balogun, by far the most rugged of the back four, has been beset by injuries for most of his international career so far. Kenneth Omeruo has been in and out in fits and starts. And Rohr still has trouble finding a proper, natural right-back.
Despite all that, in three competitive games under the German, Nigeria have scored six times and conceded just twice. As this AFCON tournament has shown, defence is where Cameroon excel. It is how they went all the way to the final, conceding just three goals in six games played and staying unbeaten all the way through.
Cameroon manager Hugo Broos understood the limitations of his squad, and set them up with a strategy of defence first. They took a battering from both Gabon, Senegal and for half of their matchup against Ghana but did not conceded once in those three matches. The only games in which they conceded were against Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and Egypt when they tried to play a much more open game.
Nigeria coach Rohr was in Gabon, and told ESPN FC he was not surprised
"I know Hugo (Broos). He knows how to be organised defensively with his team. But we can win against them."
It will be a surprise if Cameroon come to Nigeria in August and try to be so open with the threat of Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa and even the largely underrated Oghenekaro Etebo prowling in midfield.
That is the good news. The bad news is that a confident Cameroon does not do any good for Nigerian blood pressure. Christian Bassogog is a threat from the wide areas. Moukandjo offers penetration and long-range shooting from deep and Vincent Aboubakar is the sort of predatory forward that the Nigeria defence are susceptible against.
Talent and skill alone will not be enough to win this. And make no mistake, the Super Eagles MUST win that game if they hope to be at the World Cup.
What is needed is more of a determination to be in Russia, than the strength of whatever tactics both coaches decide to deploy. Nigeria must win the first ball, the second ball, and if necessary, the third ball. No cause can be too lost to be chased until it actually is.
And then there is fitness. Cameroon striker Robert Ndip Tambe told ESPN FC that Hugo Broos had the players working so hard on fitness in training camp that they came this close to rebellion."We were thinking, is the coach crazy or what, but we trusted him and kept doing what he asked and we won the final because after 60 minutes we saw that Egypt were tired. So we attacked them."
Cameroon's new found strength is Nigeria's age-long weakness. The Super Eagles have conceded late goals recently against Tunisia, Egypt, Zambia, Algeria and others. Rohr will have to devise a means to ensure that not only are his wards physically resilient enough to last the distance but will also have the mental durability to stay switched on for the full 90 minutes.
That, more than talent or tactics, is what it will take to best this Cameroon side and make it to the World Cup.
Colin Udoh is a Nigeria football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.