Goal-greedy strikers hold the key to Nigeria's Afcon success
Nigeria have always had the good fortune of being blessed with an array of attacking talent, especially going into an Africa Cup of Nations, and this edition is no exception.
As much as a good backline has always satisfied the maxim of "defence wins championships," it has been the swashbuckling forward line which has captivated the fans and shot the Super Eagles to continental glory on three occasions.
Witness: 1980 Nations Cup-winning forwards Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amiesmiaka, Aloysius Atuegbu and Henry Nwosu, through to 1994 winners Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Samson Siasia, Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke, to combined silver and bronze winners Victor Ikpeba, Osaze Odemwingie, Ike Uche, John Utaka, Yakubu Ayegbeni, and the more recent 2013 winners Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa.
Even before kicking a ball in anger at this month's edition in Egypt, Gernot Rohr's class of 2019 is sure to rank amongst the most lethal of the country's selections, at least in theory.
They have scored a combined total of 87 goals in club football this season, a remarkable return which puts them in good stead for the title. But more on that in a bit.
Odion Ighalo leads a stellar cast of players who are almost as underrated as they are deadly. At least at club level.
Then, Ahmed Musa, Paul Onuachu, Victor Osimhen, Samuel Kalu, Samuel Chukwueze, Henry Onyekuru and Moses Simon make up the names that Rohr can select from to fill the starting positions in his front three at any point in time.
It is a fearsome selection. It is tough to remember when last the Super Eagles had such a deep pool of talented and in-form attackers on their roster, if ever.
Rohr has picked a forward line that is as diverse as it has been lethal infant of goal, a group so talented they can score in a variety of ways with deadly precision. And therein lies their strength: the ability to offer different looks to different opposition depending on how they shape up.
Ighalo is the typical, old-fashioned centre forward who led the rest of the African field in goals scored during qualifying, rattling off seven goals during the series. He offers brute strength, close quarters combat, headed goals and the fox in the box tap-ins.
The 29-year-old is also the designated penalty taker, and has a 90 percent-plus success rate from the spot.
Both Onuachu and Osimhen are Ighalo backups, offering largely similar but also slightly unique skillsets. Onuachu's long-limbed frame means he can reach farther than most with his lower extremities to claim second balls, or keep them away from the opposition at close quarters.
It also means he can generate more power than most from range with minimal backlift, like he showed in scoring against Egypt, and he requires next to no elevation to reach high balls. For a man of his size, his nimble feet also comes as something of a pleasant surprise.
Osimhen, on the other hand, is a younger and quicker version of both, who can deliver venomous rockets from distance with the same instinctive ease with which he can poach inside the area.
His 20 goals this season for RSC Charleroi are the second highest scored by any of the Nigerian forwards on the squad. Onuachu leads the way with 22.
Out wide, assistant skipper Musa is the orchestrator in chief. His pace has proven troublesome for even the best teams in the world, as he showed at two World Cups. Despite his small frame, he can also be deployed with success (as his time at CSKA Moscow shows) as a central striker.
Same thing applies to Onyekuru, whose 16 goals this season for Galatasaray is evidence enough of his clinical efficiency. He is just as quick, just as strong, as the best around despite being a slightly built player.
The other three, Moses Simon, Samuel Kalu, and Samuel Chukwueze, are marked by their waspish frames, nimble feet and venomous firepower, in addition to a rapid burst of sprinters pace.
All three thrive on trickery, take-ons and hit the ball with such vicious force from range that they either score or set up tap-ins for the teammates.
Chukwueze is particularly adept at this and, as the only natural left-footer in the group, his ability to play as an inverted winger makes it extra difficult for fullbacks to stay with him when he cuts inside as he is wont to do.
This diverse combination of forwards is one that will have defenders cursing their luck. It is no surprise they have managed a combined return of 87 goals amongst them this past season.
As phenomenal a number as that might appear to be, it is still only second amongst the countries travelling to Egypt. Senegal's forward line have scored an astonishing 103 club goals between them.
And so the Super Eagles frontline will need to up their game in Egypt if Nigeria are to win the title. Their last two friendly games, against Egypt (sans Mohamed Salah) and Zimbabwe, yielded a grand total of just one goal. And they were playing at home.
In Egypt, they will need to do better. But at least no one can accuse this frontline of not knowing their way to goal. That, in itself, is cause for more than a little optimism.