Nelspruit, South Africa: Nigeria, with a stand-out 13 top-three finishes in the bank, return to the Africa Cup of Nations fold after missing the boat last year, with an opening run-out against Burkina Faso on Monday.
No-nonsense coach Stephen Keshi knows what it takes to claim the continental showcase having been captain of the last Super Eagles’ team to go all the way in Tunis 19 years ago.
They beat Zambia 2-1 in the final then and come up against the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) again in their second Group C game next Friday.
Keshi, who made a name for himself as a physically formidable centre-back, has spent the last few weeks fine-tuning his squad in Portugal.
Nigeria’s diet of warm-up friendlies harvested a mediocre set of results, with a 1-1 draw against a Barcelona-boosted Catalonia side, a goalless draw with fellow qualifiers Cape Verde, a 1-0 behind-closed-doors win over Dutch club Sparta Rotterdam and a 5-0 rout of a Portuguese second division outfit.
Keshi, who failed to get past the first round in previous stints with Togo and Mali, is happy with his squad’s commitment.
“It is good to see players working so hard to win places in my starting line-up. Such competition gives me a nice kind of headache.
“No one has a permanent shirt in the team - they must fight to get it and fight to keep it.”
Captain Joseph Yobo, poised to equal Nwankwo Kanu’s record of playing in six Nations Cups, is not blind to the difficulty of the task that lies before him and his team.
“Winning the trophy is not going to be easy but I promise we will give it our best shot,” he said.
The defender added: “Let us not get beyond ourselves. The focus for now is on getting past the group stages and only then should we think about quarter-finals and, hopefully, the semi-finals and final.”
In midfield, Chelsea pair John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses are expected to make an impact.
Winger Moses, at his first Nations Cup, said: “We have prepared well and, having missed the last tournament, wish to make Nigerians proud by the end of it.”
Burkina Faso can only cast covetous glances at Nigeria’s outstanding Cup record, the Stallions’ having gone 17 matches without a win, their last victory way back in 1998.
Some of their exits have been gallant, others humiliating, with the team failing to harvest a single point at the 1978, 1996 and 2012 finals.
But ahead of their opener in Nelspruit, striker Aristide Bance was in positive frame of mind.
“I believe we have learnt from past failures and have a realistic chance of getting out of the group,” said the star who plays for Bundesliga side Augsburg.
Burkina’s prospects were boosted with the return to fitness of another striker, Alain Traore, but his heel injury may prevent him playing in the opening round.
Such is his significance to the national cause — he scored a decisive stoppage-time goal to put Burkina Faso through at the expense of the Central African Republic — a high-ranking delegation headed to Brittany last month to pay him a courtesy visit at his club, Lorient.