Short-staffed Nigeria unbothered by prospect of Salah's Egypt at AFCON

Losing four starters on the eve of a tournament is not exactly ideal for any team with realistic designs on the title, but Nigeria captain Ahmed Musa says his team is confident ahead of their Africa Cup of Nations opener against Egypt.

The Super Eagles start their AFCON tilt against Mohamed Salah's Pharaohs in Garoua on Tuesday, missing the likes of Victor Osimhen, Leon Balogun, and Odion Ighalo, while Paul Onuachu is not with the squad either.

Last time both sides met in an AFCON opening duel was in 2010 and the Pharaohs ran away 3-1 winners. Now, led by Salah, they look even more dangerous, but Nigeria skipper Musa remains bullish.

He told ESPN: "Everyone is talking about Salah. But if you look at our team we have lots of players they will be worried about. So we don't have to think about Salah; they have to think about our own players.

"They talk about Salah but we have players like Samuel Chukwueze and others on the wings who are very dangerous."

And Musa is confident that the Eagle can go all the way, despite the loss of key pieces, as many where with the side when they finished third at the event in 2019: "I don't think there is any new player going to the AFCON. So we are together and we know each other.

"We know what is important. If we win this tournament, it will make a very big impact for the country. We know what we can do, we know what we need to do, and we know that we can win this tournament if we give our best."

But Nigeria, three-time winners of this title, go into that meeting, and the rest of their campaign, without at least four of their key weapons.

Osimhen, whose five goals in qualifying not only made him series joint top scorer but also accounted for Nigeria making it through, suffered an eye injury playing with his Italian club Napoli.

And despite the player's best efforts at trying to make himself available for the tournament, found his club intractable. And when the forward tested positive for COVID while on holidays in Nigeria, all bets were off.

Between AFCON and World Cup qualifying, Osimhen accounted for nearly 40 percent of Nigeria's goalscoring load. Beyond that, his energetic play, pace, and direct running, are intangibles that are all but irreplaceable.

Fellow starters Balogun and Shehu Abdullahi, both defensive stalwarts, also both pulled out due to injury. Balogun in particular, will be a big miss, mostly for his ability to read the game and particularly for his leadership and vocal communication at the back.

Add all of this to the inability to a get Watford's Emmanuel Dennis into the squad due to a miscommunication between club, federation, and player, and the situation is looking rather grim.

From a team with, on paper, arguably the best combined firepower at the tournament, the Super Eagles have now been reduced to relying on rookie back up strikers with less than 45 minutes of combined senior international football between them to run their offense.

As if it weren't bad enough, they were already in a tricky spot with a brand new man at the helm after the firing of their previous coach Gernot Rohr with less than three weeks to the tournament.

Dire as the situation may appear, it is not entirely hopeless, and it speaks to Nigeria's abundance of talent that [not so] new man Augustine Eguavoen still has more than enough quality, if inexperienced, replacements to call upon.

For Osimhen, interim coach Eguavoen called up Henry Onyekuru, although it is not a like for like replacement. Shehu was replaced by the supremely talented Tyrone Ebuehi, and Balogun by West Brom's Semi Ajayi, who proved himself to be a defensive rock for Nigeria when he filled in during qualifying.

Rohr was fired largely for the perception that his team played laborious, uninspiring football. Eguavoen has been tasked with reversing that trend, and he has to do so from a backfoot position.

It is a task he is well positioned to accomplish though, having led a previous iteration of this team to bronze in 2006 and been part of the staff that also did the same two years prior. Eguavoen is also the only Nigeria coach to have won all three group games at AFCON, during that 2006 run.

Fortunately for him, and unlike the position a brand new coach would have been in, Eguavoen is familiar with the squad already, not just from having been embedded with them over the last year as Technical Director, but also being in a position to receive and review post game technical reports.

After a week of training, Eguavoen lined up his team in a practice match against Cameroon's Coton Sport, and a picture emerged.

Of the trio of strikers in line to replace Osimhen, Union Berlin's Taiwo Awoniyi is in pole position. Almeria's Sadiq Umar is close behind, with Peter Olayinka of Slavia Prague not far off. That would appear to be the major gap that needs filling.

READ: Everything you need to know about the Africa Cup of Nations

Kenneth Omeruo, one of only two players -- along with Musa -- from the 2013 AFCON-winning squad, could see his experience put him in line to take Balogun's place at centreback, although both Chidozie Awaziem and Ajayi would be breathing down his neck.

Wide out, Ebuehi's late arrival means Ola Aina has dibs on the starting rightback position. Awaziem provides an additional option, with Orlando Pirates' Olisa Ndah also in contention.

All of these mean that despite the absences, there will be little drop in quality, except upfront.

Eguavoen's post-match comments after the 2-0 scrimmage win over Coton Sport, also gave an inkling into what the style would be.

"The ball movement was a bit faster, but as the game progressed you could see fatigue setting in so the ball movements became slower," he told the media.

"In front of goal, we were too few, that's something we have to work on. The crosses were coming in, the ball possession to the side, which is our strength, was very good but arriving in the box with too few players was not so good. That is something we have to work on in the next few days."