Games between Nigeria and South Africa always generate massive interest, and Saturday’s 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg shouldn’t be any different.
Beyond the consequences for AFCON qualification, the match also affords Nigeria an opportunity to halt their recent struggles against South Africa.
In 13 previous meetings between both teams, Nigeria have won seven, drawn four and lost twice.
The Super Eagles’ early dominance of the fixture was buttressed with seven wins from the first nine games, but they’ve failed to register a single win in the last four encounters, losing on home soil the last time the pair clashed in Uyo.
That loss, on matchday one in the qualifiers in June 2017, was Gernot Rohr’s first defeat as Super Eagles head coach, and was Nigeria’s competitive defeat by Bafana.
On this occasion, they didn’t have the same excuses as they’d had during the 2015 AFCON qualifying campaign, when Nigeria took just two points from Bafana as they missed out on the tournament.
While Nigeria appear to have bounced back stronger after the setback 17 months ago, winning three games on the bounce to go top of the group on nine points, preparations for this all-important fixture haven’t gone according to plan.
Wilfred Ndidi’s suspension puts Nigeria in a tricky midfield position. Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
Midfield enforcer Wilfred Ndidi received two yellow cards against Libya in October, thus suspending him for this clash.
Captain John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi, a senior figure in the squad, were both omitted, leaving Nigeria somewhat short in midfield.
However, Bafana are also without several key men in the heart of the park, with Dean Furman, Keagan Dolly, Kamohlo Mokotjo, Sibusiso Vilakazi and Bongani Zungu all missing.
The Eagles had every reason to be confident of outscoring the hosts, although the loss of injured top scorer Odion Ighalo certainly blunts their attacking threat.
First-choice goalkeeper Francis Uzoho is also injured, leaving Rohr with several gaps to fill before this high-profile bout.
As well as the missing players, Rohr must also combat the testing altitude that they’ll encounter at the FNB Stadium.
Nigeria’s three previous victories in South Africa were achieved in coastal venues – Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town – and have failed to win on their two previous visits to Johannesburg, 6,000ft above sea level.
The team were held to a goalless draw on their first appearance at the stadium 25 years ago, where altitude clearly affected the visitors.
On a second appearance in the city, coincidentally, on 17 November 2004, a depleted Nigeria side suffered their first defeat in the hands of South Africa, a 2-1 international friendly loss in the annual Nelson Mandela Challenge.
Could that be a major psychological advantage card for Bafana as they look to replicate the result exactly 14 years on?
Nigeria will be desperate to seal qualification ahead of the final matchday in March 2019, and have planned to arrive in Joberg only hours before kickoff in order to deal with the altitude.
It remains to be seen if the strategy will pay off.
While Nigerians will remain optimistic even in the face of glaring challenges, the team will be aware of their previous struggles in Johannesburg, and their desire to makes amends have been harmed by the swathe of absentees.
A draw could see both sides through if the Seychelles manage to repeat their recent heroics against Bafana when they host Libya in Victoria, while Nigeria will definitely advance with a draw.
However, the Super Eagles have been known to make life difficult for themselves in the past, and a combination of altitude, a poor track record in Johannesburg, and many key absentees opens the door for history to repeat itself this weekend.