Nigeria hope Lookman, Boniface spark vs. Bafana Bafana in World Cup qualifier

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Match day three is crunch time for old foes Nigeria and South Africa in CAF's 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They were expected to dominate Group C, and turn it into a two-horse race, but they have suffered early stumbles; Nigeria recorded surprise draws at home to Lesotho and away to Zimbabwe while South Africa lost to Rwanda, who were in pole position ahead of this round of matches.

There are still four matches to go, and things are far from decided, but the picture could become slightly less opaque after this qualifying window.

Friday's encounter in Uyo has little margin for error on both sides, but Nigeria could find themselves staring hard down the barrel with any result short of a win. Yet, their build up -- surprise, surprise -- has been anything but ideal.

The Nigeria Football Federation dilly-dallied for months after parting ways with former coach Jose Peseiro, and confirmed his former assistant Finidi George as his successor just weeks ahead of the game.

Lead striker and African Player of the Year Victor Osimhen is out with injury, as is vice-captain and defensive rock William Troost-Ekong, full-back Ola Aina, Kenneth Omeruo and left-backs Zaidu Sanusi and Jamilu Collins. That is almost the entire first-choice rearguard.

As if that were not bad enough, a nationwide strike action by labour unions saw eight first-team players unable to get to the team camp on time, including the outstanding Ademola Lookman. That left George with only one day of training with his full squad, on the eve of match day.

The coach, however, said that should not be too much of a problem to overcome.

"The strike affected just three players, Maduka, Iwobi and Lookman," George said. "For the rest, everybody got a bit of the training we programmed for them so I don't think that will be a problem."

With so many moving parts, what should we be looking at when the Super Eagles take on Bafana Bafana on Friday night?

How will Nigeria deal with the adversity

This should not really be a question. Bulldozing their way through adversity has become second nature to Nigeria, and just because they face problems does not necessarily mean it will end badly. If anything, adversity is often their cue to excel under difficult circumstances. An example is the 2016 Olympic team, which faced travel and funding issues that saw them land in Brazil on the day of their opening game. They won that game, and went all the way to win a bronze medal.

The added pressure on the Super Eagles, of needing to win this game to remain within striking distance of group leaders Rwanda, with a chance of going top after Benin defeated Amavubi 1-0 on Thursday night), should provide additional motivation to perform well despite the setbacks.

The real question is which Nigeria shows up.

Can Lookman take the lead in Osimhen's absence

Osimhen has been Nigeria's leading scorer for three qualifiers in succession, popping up with decisive goals when needed in the 2021 and 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers as well as the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

He was the leading scorer in Africa for the two AFCON qualifiers, with 10 and five goals respectively, and bagged 19 across the three schedules. That is not just a lot of goals to give up going into a decisive round of matches, but also the threat of his presence that keeps defenders on their toes.

Osimhen appeared to have gone off the boil this past season, however, seemingly due to a combination of family issues that led to a legal wrangle with his brother-in-law cum former manager, and injuries. The forward would usually be a big miss, but his underwhelming performance at the Nations Cup saw Ademola Lookman take centre stage, and that could be a plus for Nigeria.

The Atalanta forward scored three goals in Nigeria's run to the final, tying with Troost-Ekong, and he carried that form into his league season before putting the cherry on top with a record hat-trick as Atalanta stunned favourites Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Europa League final.

Lookman was one of the eight players to experience travel hitches on their way to camp, but he is expected still to be the fulcrum around which Nigeria's frontline is built. He shone when playing as a foil to Osimhen. Can he do the same without the Napoli man?

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Time for Boniface to shine

Victor Boniface is the playere most likely to be the direct replacement for Osimhen, after the Leverkusen striker had to withdraw at the last minute from Nigeria's AFCON squad due to injury.

Questions remain as to how different Nigeria's performances at the tournament, and outcome, might have been had he remained, given the option of doubling him up in attack with Osimhen or giving the Napoli man much needed rest with a quality replacement in the rotation.

Boniface returned to Germany and helped Leverkusen to the Bundesliga title in a season in which they lost only one in all tournaments, to Atalanta.

He will now bear the responsibility of leading Nigeria's attack in the absence of Osimhen. The expectations, quite frankly, are high, but he has a toolkit overflowing with multifaceted talent. He is a big man who is hard to shake off the ball, possesses excellent close control, and knows how to finish.

With Osimhen out, there is no light to dim Boniface's, and he could emerges at the end of the qualifiers with his name in lights.

How does Finidi George manage a short-handed defence

Nigeria's AFCON run was built on uncharacteristically solid and organized defending, led by Troost-Ekong, but that rearguard has taken quite the injury beating ahead of this game. All but two of the starters from the Nations Cup have been laid out by injury; Fulham's Calvin Bassey and West Bromwich Albion's Semi Ajayi are the only survivors.

George has been left with a bare-bones defence to face the quick Bafana Bafana. It is a weakness that South AFrica coach Hugo Broos is looking to exploit, saying earlier in the week that the Super Eagles' game at AFCON was built on defence and his team could find spaces to take advantage.

The Super Eagles have more-than-capable replacements, but they remain short of bodies. If George sticks to the AFCON strategy of a back five, he will have just one substitute to play with.

Still, there is opportunity for the likes of Benjamin Tanimu and Sadiq Ismael to make their marks if handed a debut. Ismael, in particular can strike a blow for more domestic league players if he gets on and shows out.

Can George handle the expectations?

George may have got the job of head coach, but, for many, he is essentially on probation. The coming qualifiers -- vs. South Africa on Friday and Benin away on Monday -- may determine his length of tenure, and he has little margin for error.

A victory over Bafana Bafana may provide the filip that swings support his his way and leads to another win against Benin, who are led by former Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr. A draw or defeat could seriously compromise not just the qualification hopes but also George's chances of keeping the job for any length of time.

The former Nigeria winger is unperturbed, however

"I don't have anything to prove," he said this week. "It is the media that hypes everything. For me, I am quite relaxed. It is football. We know we want to win and we know what is at stake. If the boys do what we want, victory will be ours so I am not worried. We are going for victory, and that is what I believe is going to happen."