Nigeria will not win the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations even if they clinch qualification later this month, says former DR Congo captain Gabriel Zakuani.
The three-time African champions are currently top of Group L where all the teams, which include Benin, Sierra Leone and Lesotho, can still qualify for January’s finals in Cameroon. The Super Eagles would have already qualified had they not let slip a 4-0 lead at home to Sierra Leone, who salvaged a dramatic 4-4 draw with two goals in the last ten minutes, last November.”At this moment, I don’t quite feel they are ready because champions will not give away four-goal leads, so I don’t expect them to win,” Zakuani told a special edition of the BBC’s Sports Africa TV programme.
“I feel like it has come too soon for them to win it. [It’s time] for them to just be there, compete and then push on again.” March sees the culmination of the Nations Cup qualifying with the final two rounds of matches in each of the 12 groups, where 39 of the 48 teams can still go through. So far, Algeria, Senegal, Tunisia and Mali have joined hosts Cameroon at the delayed finals, leaving 19 places left to fill. Nigeria currently top Group L on eight points, one ahead of Benin while Sierra Leone have three points and Lesotho two. The first matches later this month sees the Nigerians travelling to Benin while Lesotho host Sierra Leone. On the final matchday, Nigeria will play Lesotho in Lagos while Sierra Leone play Benin in a game moved to Guinea because the stadium in Freetown has been prevented from hosting international matches. While Zakuani has blamed a lack of consistency in the squad and insisted upon a need for a settled side, Nigeria forward Alex Iwobi is trying to focus on what is going well. “The positive you can take is we are still on course to be top of the table, so we are confident we have the quality to do so and put 100% for 90 minutes this time, so we can qualify,” the Everton star told BBC Sport Africa. “The opportunity I was given last time to be involved in that competition, I want that feeling again,” he said of his 2019 Nations Cup experience, where Nigeria finished third.
“If you are in a competition you want to win it, [and] I believe us players feel we have the quality to do so. We’d like to play in the best competitions and win them, so we have to prove that against Lesotho and Benin.” Alongside Nigeria, the Beninois – who reached the quarter-finals two years ago – are favourites to clinch one of the two qualifying places. “Since the Nations Cup, we have had some very good results – we have beaten Ivory Coast [and] Gabon [in friendlies],” 32-year-old Benin international Emmanuel Imorou told BBC Sport Africa. “Even during our qualifiers, we have put on some great displays. We are better, if we compare to my debut, in terms of structure, organisation, equipment – it is starting to look like something good. “We are a team with a great bond. We don’t have clashes, we get along and I think it’s important – in the crucial games, it helps us.” While Nigeria and Benin were at the last Nations Cup, Sierra Leone were last there in 1996 while Lesotho are seeking a maiden qualification.