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Nigeria and South Africa in 'grudge' clash

Thulani Hlatshwayo (Gallo Images)
Thulani Hlatshwayo (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - Rival captains Ogenyi Onazi of Nigeria and Thulani Hlatshwayo of South Africa have set a fiery tone for their 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier this weekend.

The Group E showdown in Uyo offers the South Africans another chance to beat their fierce rivals for the first time in an official match after six losses and three draws since 1992.

"We do not want to forget that South Africa partly contributed to us not going to the 2015 Cup of Nations," said Onazi, standing in as skipper for unavailable John Mikel Obi.

"This time, we must restore our pride and make sure we get the three points off them on Saturday.

"Nigerians do not forgive losers easily and it is our responsibility to make the country proud whenever we are in action," added the Turkey-based midfielder.

Hlatshwayo, a centre-back from South African champions Wits, was named captain this week by new England-born coach Stuart Baxter.

"It will be a baptism of fire as captain, but we have come close to beating them in our last two meetings and I think they are there for the taking this time.

"Although Nigeria are a proud and arrogant team, I believe we have now overcome that psychological barrier of not having beaten them in an official match.

"This will be a grudge match. We denied them a place at the 2015 Cup of Nations and they will be out for revenge, which might work to our advantage."

Apart from being a bogey team for South Africa, an in-form squad, home advantage, longer preparations and several warm-up matches make Nigeria favourites.

But German coach Gernot Rohr cautioned against over-optimism ahead of the first-round fixture in a group completed by unpredictable Libya and outsiders the Seychelles.

"Our team is young and the future looks bright, but there is still considerable work to do," said the handler who has transformed the "Super Eagles".

'Big nuisance'

Inheriting a team that failed to qualify for the 2017 Cup of Nations, Rohr plotted World Cup victories over Zambia and Algeria to bring a 2018 finals place in Russia within sight.

Baxter begins a second stint in charge of "Bafana Bafana" (The Boys) in a confident mood despite the loss through injury of midfield enforcer Hlompho Kekana.

"We are capable of hurting Nigeria. We want to be a big nuisance to them - to be their worst nightmare."

Another mega opening round fixture pits hosts Tunisia against Egypt, record seven-time African champions and runners-up to Cameroon in the 2017 final, in Group J.

African giants Al Ahly and Zamalek dominate the Egyptian squad as usual with 14 of the 25 players, but Argentine coach Hector Cuper will hope for goals from several Europe-based "Pharaohs".

Mohamed Salah was a consistent Serie A scorer for Roma last season while the outstanding form of Ramadan Sobhy at Ahly led Stoke City to sign him.

Ivory Coast will dedicate a Group H clash with Guinea in Bouake to the memory of 2015 Cup of Nations winner Cheick Tiote, who died in China this week after fainting while training.

Former Newcastle United midfielder Tiote had not been called up for the match by new coach Marc Wilmots.

The Belgian had a nightmare debut last Sunday with a 5-0 friendly drubbing by the Netherlands - a record Ivorian loss in their 57-year history.

Although guaranteed a place at the 2019 finals as hosts, title-holders Cameroon will play in Group B to get match practice and host 2017 quarter-finalists Morocco in Yaounde.

Algeria, whose squad includes reigning African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez, hope to end a disastrous slump when they host Emmanuel Adebayor-inspired Togo in Blida.

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