'No excuses': Nigeria interim coach Augustine Eguavoen aims to make the most of another AFCON tilt

It must feel like deja vu for Super Eagles interim coach Augustine Eguavoen, who was in charge of the Nigeria team at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 and saw them to a bronze medal.

Fifteen years after, he has returned to lead the team back to the tournament and then make way for someone else, this time for Jose Peseiro, who will take over from Gernot Rohr.

In 2006, Eguavoen was serving as a stop gap between Christian Chukwu, who was fired after Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and Berti Vogts, who was appointed later.

While the circumstances are similar, there are some differences.

Heading into that 2006 tournament, Eguavoen had been assistant to Chukwu. That gave him more of an insider's knowledge into the team and the players than on this occasion, when his position as Technical Director only allowed him an outsider's view.

Crucially, having led the team through the last two games of the World Cup qualifiers, and through training camp for the Nations Cup in 2006, Eguavoen had more time to prep the team for the tournament.

None of those luxuries are available to him this go-around, with him meeting his squad and getting together just 14 days before their opening game of the tournament, and no time for a proper friendly game to gauge the team's preparedness.

Naturally, expectations have been lowered going into the tournament, with the federation making it clear after firing Rohr that there was little expectation to win the tournament.

"We don't believe we would have won the Nation Cup with Gernot Rohr," NFF president Amaju Pinnick said at the time of Rohr' sacking.

"The team will use the competition to prepare for the World Cup qualifiers."

Despite these subdued expectations, Eguavoen is experienced enough to know that expectations will rise the moment the first ball is kicked, and he is leaving very little to chance.

"We have to face reality, nobody cares to hear excuses," he told ESPN. "We have to tell the players where we are now and where we want to be at the end of AFCON.

"The federation has a goal, the country has a goal, as players and individuals we also have goals. So we're going to set a goal for ourselves and make sure we work hard to reach that goal.

"We have all it takes to go all the way but we have to take it game after game."

And just like Rohr, who told ESPN that this team is good enough to go all the way, Eguavoen says his wards are equipped to do more than just add to the numbers in Cameroon.

"I think this team is ready to compete anytime they are called upon," he said. "And yes, the time is quite short, we all know that. But we are Nigerians and once you get to a tournament, everybody expects you to win.

"Nobody cares what happened before. From the blast of the whistle, nobody wants to hear excuses, but with the quality of players we have, I don't think we will struggle."

The biggest hurdle to get the team ready is time. Eguavoen opened training camp on December 29, but as of December 30, had only six players in camp, with the England-based players not expected to arrive before January 4, just one week to their opening game against Egypt.

The NFF have mandated its technical committee to arrange a couple of scrimmages for the team in Cameroon, with leading club side Coton Sport being one of the potential candidates. Even then, Eguavoen says he will be careful not to go full tilt.

"It's not going to be as competitive because we have to be wary of injuries. It's just like a rehearsal, to see what we have done in training, to put into perfection. It will be just casual games," he said.

These limitations have been cause of sleepless nights for the coach since he was handed the role.

He added: "Since I got the news I will say I don't sleep well, because I know the expectation.

"I know there are people out there who want us to succeed, and there are a few people out there who are also in doubt. but we will do everything humanly possible to make Nigerians smile."

To do so, Eguavoen would have to convince those doubters, many of whom believe that his team of 2006 played conservatively despite the talents of Austin Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, John Mikel Obi, Christian Obodo, Osaze Odemwingie, and John Utaka, amongst others.

But Eguavoen insists that he has evolved and grown as a coach and his team will show that evolution: "I think I'm better now. Because life is about experience. Every day counts, everything matters.

"I've watched coaches, I've watched games and I learn; we all learn every day. The thing now is, the opponent's determines how you set up your team. So there will be a different approach against Egypt, different approach against Sudan, different approach against Guinea Bissau as well.

"When the time comes, you will see all of that. Mind you, it's not a one man show; I've also got people around me to tap from also, we have to sit down and talk things through and come up with one agreement or decision. Of course, I have the final say and when the time comes, we'll see."

Odemwingie, who played in that 2006 team under Eguavoen, is confident the team will do well under 'Cerezo'.

"I can say surely there is something special about him as a human being first of all," Odemwingie told ESPN. "It is hard to put into words but he is a personality that the current players can benefit a lot from.

"He played in Russia and got along with people there and that says a lot about him. He also a strong mentality as he was one of the early African players to play there and in sometimes tough conditions. He is definitely inspirational. A gentleman of the game."

High praise indeed, but being Mr Nice does not win football games. Players and tactics do, and most importantly for Nigerians, attacking football. Samson Siasia, controversial as he is, remains beloved for the expansive way his teams play.

And Rohr eventually lost his job because of the perception that his team plaid laborious, staid football. Eguavoen will not only have to shed his conservative tag, but also win games.

He offered some insight into how his team will play in Cameroon: "We are team that likes to build from the back, but we mix it up. When it is time to go long, we go long and that depends on how the opposition shape up. But the whole team has to do it together so that we can win always win second balls.

"Playing from the wings, that has always been our tradition. But now, we don't have the Finidis, the Amunikes, the Odegbamis, the Elohos, for wing play, so how do you achieve that?

"We have to try to be flexible. And yes, we have Chukwueze, Simon, Ejuke. So, going forward we can be fast and we can be explosive but what about defending? We have to do a defensive job as well."

Villareal's Chukwueze, CSKA's Ejuke, and Leicester City's Wilfred Ndidi, in particular, look like they will have very important roles to play in Eguavoen's team.

The coach added: "When I see Ejuke, I see a young man with a lot of potential, if properly used and encouraged. Same thing with Chukwueze. He still has a lot to achieve and they can both give us that explosiveness on the wings.

"As for Ndidi, I think he is on his way to becoming one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. But he is holding back as far as I am concerned. The reason why he is holding back I don't know. But I think he can do better than what he is doing at the moment."

For now, though, Eguavoen's immediate focus is Egypt on January 11: "Egypt are seven times winners. They are a team I've played against, a team I have coached against as well.

"We know what they can bring to the table. So, we are going to do everything possible to see how we can actually analyze them individually and collectively, and map out the strategy until we find a solution on how we can take care of them."