W’Cup qualifiers: Chukwueze tops Eagles injury list, Bafana battle fitness concerns

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By: Ebenezer Bajela

Twenty-three days before their crucial 2026 World Cup qualifiers, both Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana camps are facing various fitness concerns as several key players are racing against time to be fit for the encounter, PUNCH Sports Extra reports.

The two rivals will clash at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Uyo on June 7 as they hope to get their World Cup campaign back on track after an abysmal start.

Nigeria were Group C favourites but started their World Cup qualifying campaign on a poor note, recording two draws in their first two games against Lesotho and Zimbabwe to sit third in the group behind Rwanda and South Africa, who occupy the first and second positions with four and three points respectively.

The Eagles’ abysmal start to the qualifiers means South Africa are in with a real chance of qualifying for a first World Cup other than as hosts since 2002.

With both sides set to come up against each other for the second time this year, having clashed in the semi-finals of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast, there are players fitness concerns in the camp of the two fierce rivals.

Topping the list of injured Eagles stars for the crucial game is AC Milan forward, Samuel Chukwueze.

The winger, who missed Nigeria’s international friendly against Ghana and Mali in March, is again in the race to be fit for the World Cup qualifiers after picking up an injury during the Rossoneri’s Serie A fixture against Cagliari on Saturday.

The 24-year-old was forced off the field at the start of the second half and was replaced by Rafael Leao.

Milan Post confirmed that the Nigerian had suffered an injury to the hamstring of the left thigh and could be out for several weeks.

Right-back, Tyronne Ebuehi, is already ruled out for the season after suffering an ACL tear in March, while Moses Simon and Zaidu Sanusi are also out with long-term injuries, further depleting Nigeria’s attacking and defensive options.

Boavista full-back Bruno Onyemaechi is also on the injury list and unlikely to return before the qualifiers due to a knee injury.

While injuries are a major worry, new coach Finidi George has to consider the lack of match fitness of some of his key players. Defenders William Troost-Ekong, Jamilu Collins and Semi Ajayi haven’t seen much playing time recently.

Meanwhile, former Bafana Bafana fitness trainer Joshua Smith has also expressed concerns about the potential fatigue of the core players of the team.

At the 2023 AFCON, coach Hugo Broos’ side was built around Mamelodi Sundowns with seven or eight in his starting XI.

The Brazilians, as Sundowns are fondly called, have competed across six competitions in 2023/24, including two continental tournaments, winning the inaugural African Football League.

On June 1, six days before the all-important clash against Nigeria, Sundowns will face Orlando Pirates in the Nedbank Cup final at Mbombela Stadium.

Smith, who worked with Stuart Baxter’s side that reached the quarter-finals at the 2019 Nations Cup, sees pros and cons to the Sundowns players’ schedule for Broos.

“I certainly think it’s a double-edged sword,” he was quoted as saying by TimeLives.

“You’ve got the success of the season, the success of AFCON, success of Sundowns, which as the South African football fraternity is fantastic to see; but at the same time in his head he must be concerned — he’s got key players not getting the recovery they need.

“If I was in that position or the performance manager for the national team, I’d try to garner as close a relationship with Sundowns as possible, with their high-performance staff. Get an understanding of what they are doing and how we can at the national team leverage that to get the most out of our core players.

“I do think we need to do more in fostering that relationship between club and country at an organisational level. I don’t feel it’s always been done correctly.”

He added, “Again, look, he’s got a lot of challenges he’s got to work around. And again, that just comes down to what type of plans they have in place. As much as Sundowns are monitoring the player load and implementing recovery, what is the national team doing to monitor players externally? Do they get an idea of match minutes played, do they potentially have access to and are they talking to Sundowns to get GPS data?

“There will need to be a really rigorous recovery strategy in place to get the most out of these players.”

The Super Eagles and Bafana are in Group C which also has Lesotho, Benin Republic, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.