How Can Nigeria Improve After Poor Start In 2026 World Cup Qualifiers?

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Nigeria were held to a 1-1 home draw by minnows Lesotho in their Group C opener before coming from behind to pick up a point against Zimbabwe in their second match.

Boss Jose Peseiro has come under pressure after failing to get the best out of the vast array of attacking talent at his disposal, but former Nigeria goalkeeper Peter Rufai has urged supporters not to write off the side.

“They can surprise us. Football is a crazy sport. I believe they can still turn things around and make Nigerians happy,” the 60-year-old, who played at the 1994 and 1998 World Cup finals, told BBC Sport Africa.

“It’s not a disaster yet.

“I expect the team to turn it around and qualify for the World Cup.”

Nigeria are third in the Group C table, two points off leaders Rwanda, who recorded a shock win over South Africa on Tuesday.

The Super Eagles missed out on a ticket to the 2022 World Cup following a play-off defeat by West African rivals Ghana on away goals.

Peseiro and his team now have several issues to resolve as attentions turn to the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, which begins on 13 January.

A problem in the dugout?
Since taking charge in 2022, Peseiro has won six and lost six of his 15 matches in the dugout.

His side have scored 31 times – with 10 coming in one game against Sao Tome e Principe – and conceded 21 goals.

The Portuguese guided Nigeria to qualification for the Nations Cup, with their only points dropped coming in a home defeat by Guinea-Bissau.

Yet after falling behind against Lesotho and Zimbabwe and failing to beat both sides in World Cup qualification, the former Sporting Lisbon and Porto coach has come under fire.

“We’ve started poorly considering our standard and the talent in the team,” David Doherty, a Nigerian football scout, told BBC Sport Africa.

“Can we do better? Absolutely we can – but not with this present coach.”

A member of the executive committee of the Nigeria Football Federation says they are “not happy” with the job Pesiero is doing, but that the organisation lacks the funds to terminate his contract.

In fact, the 63-year-old coach even agreed to take a pay cut in September.

“If we had the money (to pay for compensation), we will be willing to relieve him of his job,” Nse Essien said.

“Everybody is asking for the sack of the head coach. It’s unfortunate that from a possible six points we only have two points. We’re in a very precarious situation.”

Where can Nigeria improve?

The expectation from Super Eagles supporters is not far-fetched, considering the huge attacking talent available.

Given the squad boasts potent firepower such as Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, Victor Boniface of Bayer Leverkusen, Taiwo Awoniyi of Nottingham Forest and Ademola Lookman, who now plays in Serie A for Atalanta, the Super Eagles should be a handful for teams like Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

Yet pundits point to issues further back in the side.

“The set of players in our midfield now would never make any of the previous Nigeria teams – from 2013 back into the 1950s,” Eseoghene Edafe, a Lagos-based sports blogger said.

“We have some of the best attackers but strikers play instinctively. They benefit at the end of a great pass or creation of movement by the midfielders. We have not had that yet.”

The vacuum left by former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel following his retirement from the national team after the 2019 Nations Cup still appears to be a major issue.

Former Super Eagle Duke Udi, who featured in qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, believes the solution lies in blending all parts of the team to work together and not just a focus on the attacking quality.

“If any department is not functioning then it is the problem of the team because everyone has to work together,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

Goalkeepers under fire

Another area of the team which has often drawn widespread criticism is the goalkeeping department.

First choice Francis Uzoho has struggled to inspire confidence from fans, who blamed him for some of the team’s poor results in recent matches.

Peseiro gave his backing to the 25-year-old after two friendlies last month but Uzoho deactivated his social media account after the 1-1 draw against Zimbabwe on Sunday, where he was beaten by Walter Musona’s stunning long-range free-kick.

Fellow keeper Maduka Okoye also came under the spotlight after Nigeria’s quarter-final exit from the 2021 Nations Cup, a 1-0 defeat by Tunisia.

Rufai has acknowledged concerns about the goalkeeping position, while calling for a collective response from the entire team.

“Yes, we have a goalkeeping problem, but it’s not that we don’t have quality goalkeepers,” Rufai said.

“They need to be courageous, they must be strong and not let the criticisms demoralise them. The entire team should rise up to the occasion.”

Can Peseiro turn it around for Nations Cup?

After a disappointing international break, the confidence around the Super Eagles comes under intense scrutiny with questions around the team’s ability to have a good run at the Nations Cup.

Expectations appears to be low despite the NFF’s ‘Lets Do It Again’ social media campaign to mobilise support for the team in Ivory Coast, where Nigeria will face the hosts, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea in Group A.

Can they banish memories of their below-par start to the World Cup qualifiers?

“We have overcome so many challenges in the past,” captain Moses Simon posted after the draw with Zimbabwe in a message on X.

“Now is the time to reflect and come back stronger.”

The expected return of Osimhen should provide a timely boost, once the 24-year-old – who finished Nations Cup qualifiers as top scorer with 10 goals – overcomes his current hamstring injury.

With the Napoli star back on board, Udi believes Nigeria have the potential to add to their three continental titles and is backing Peseiro – for now.

“It’s too early to sack a coach because he drew two matches. He has not lost,” the former midfielder added.

“We are still on course for both competitions (the World Cup and Nations Cup). In Ivory Coast, anything can happen.”

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