Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr feels South Africa are the new favourites to win the Africa Cup of Nations.
Bafana Bafana have only won the tournament once, back in 1996 when they were on home soil.
But a 1-0 last-16 defeat of Egypt, this year’s AFCON hosts, indicated they are a serious threat with Cameroon and Morocco among the other powerhouses to also be out of the running.
Nigeria face South Africa in the quarter-finals on Wednesday and Rohr is in no doubt about the scale of the task facing the Super Eagles, who are three-time champions.
“We saw the game with Egypt against South Africa and we know South Africa well because they were in our group competing for the qualifiers,” he told reporters.
“To beat Egypt, in these circumstances, up against a good team with one of the best players in Africa [Mohamed Salah], it will make them full of confidence.
“They [Bafana Bafana] deserved to win because they were the better team and now for me, if you beat the favourite number one in Egypt, you become the new favourites.
“We also had a good game against Cameroon, we also have confidence, so we should be expecting a match of high quality.
“I think the strengths of our team is the unity and the fighting spirit – and even against South Africa, which has suddenly become the new favourites of the tournament.
“We also have confidence after scoring three goals [against Cameroon] against a team who did not concede a goal in the group stage, so we’re confident also – but for me South Africa are the favourites.”
South Africa’s matches at this year’s AFCON have all been tight, with Stuart Baxter’s side scoring just two goals but conceding only twice.
Baxter was under pressure ahead of the Egypt game but South Africa goalkeeper Ronwen Williams feels improvements are being made.
“Positive criticism is always acceptable, the positive criticism we got we took it with the pinch of salt and we moved on and we proved to everyone that we are here to do our job as best as possible,” Williams told a news conference.
“We had a slow start, our preparations were not the best and the further we go, the better we can become. The confidence is growing; I think the coach has found the right balance.
“We have been working hard to improve our weaknesses and we knew from the beginning that we could get better. In the beginning, we didn’t create a lot chances but we were solid defensively but the last game we were positive on the offensive and we can only get better as the tournament progresses.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nigeria – Odion Ighalo
Former Watford striker Odion Ighalo claimed in January he rejected a move to Barcelona, but elite clubs could be circling again due to his AFCON form. He has scored three goals at the finals so far, including a brace in Nigeria’s thrilling 3-2 defeat of Cameroon in the last 16.
South Africa – Thembinkosi Lorch
Having scored only once in the group stages, few gave Bafana Bafana any hope against Egypt in the last round. But Lorch came up with a late winner and he looks their best chance of pulling off another big result against Nigeria.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– This will be the third encounter between Nigeria and South Africa at the Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria winning the previous two without conceding a single goal (2-0 in 2000 semi-final, 4-0 in the 2004 group stage).
– Nigeria have won seven of their past eight Africa Cup of Nations game (L1). The Super Eagles have prevailed in eight of their nine quarter-final appearances in the competition (elimination against Ghana in 2008, 1-2).
– South Africa have won two of their last three games in the Africa Cup of Nations (L1), as many as in their previous 18 (D7 L9). They have been eliminated in their last two appearances in the quarter-finals of the competition, however, after qualifying in the first three.
– Bafana Bafana have never managed to score more than one goal in each of their last eight Africa Cup of Nations games (six goals). They have scored only two goals at AFCON 2019, fewer than any other team still in the competition.
– Odion Ighalo has been involved in four of Nigeria’s last five AFCON goals (three goals, one assist). He is the top goalscorer of the tournament so far (alongside Adam Ounas, Cedric Bakambu and Sadio Mane).