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Next

William Troost-Ekong banking on Serie A experience to help Nigeria's Super Eagles win Afcon

Since making his debut for Nigeria in the summer of 2015, William Troost-Ekong has played his club football in the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Turkey and, currently, Italy.

The defender is unabashed in saying that his time in Serie A, with Udinese, has forged him into a much more rugged defensive specimen.

"It is definitely the best league I have played in," he tells ESPN.

- When is the Africa Cup of Nations?
- Full Africa Cup of Nations fixtures schedule

"And I think that outside of the Premier League, and maybe the Bundesliga, I think Serie A is up there now.

"We have so many good teams and so many good players so it is exciting for me to be there. And for me to play there and play all the games.

"It is some kind of point that I proved to myself that I deserve to play there, and I am enjoying it and learning a lot and hopefully it makes me a better player."

Troost-Ekong does not hesitate when asked if the prospect of facing the likes of Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo, or Internazionale stars Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic this weekend, requires extra preparation.

"It is not really a situation where I say we motivate ourselves differently, because Udinese is a big club that has just not been doing so well the last few years," he tells ESPN ahead of the relegation-threatened club's home fixture against Inter at Stadio Friuli.

"All the games we play are important, so it's not that we can choose to play better against one team than another. Every game is important and that is pushing me to be a better player because every week I have to turn up and play well, and I think that is happening now."

That personal improvement has seen him develop increased confidence in his performance and outlook, with regard to both club and international football.

Having helped Nigeria return to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2013, Troost-Ekong is now confident enough to claim that the Super Eagles can emulate their predecessors and go home with the title.

"I am quite bold in saying that we should go there to try and win it."

"We have so much quality in our team and if everyone performs up to what they can play, I think we have shown that we can beat the top teams in Africa.

"So why not?"

It is by no means an outlandish ambition.

Six years have passed since Nigeria were last at the Africa Cup of Nations; six long years marked by the pain of failing to qualify for two consecutive tournaments.

On that occasion, in South Africa, led by the late Stephen Keshi and parading a rookie team with the odds stacked so high against them that even the semifinals were considered a reach, the Super Eagles confounded all -- including perhaps themselves -- to return home with the trophy.

They failed to qualify for the next two tournaments, hindered by administrative upheavals and coaching chaos, but a completely overhauled team -- only Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo from that 2013 squad played significant parts in this qualifying race -- has now returned the Super Eagles to Africa's signature football competition.

Troost-Ekong, then an international rookie, endured the heartbreak of watching from the sidelines as Africa's top sides competed in 2017. It is heartbreak he has no intention of suffering again.

"Of course Nigeria is the kind of team that should be going to the World Cup and to each Afcon," he says.

"Going to the World Cup [in Russia] was a good start and seeing that we hadn't been to Afcon since 2013 it was good for us to qualify now and have a good tournament and see if we can emulate what those guys did in 2013."

At one point during the qualification race, it looked like it would be third time unlucky.

The Super Eagles lost their qualifying opener, at home to South Africa, Libya ran up a big score against Seychelles, and all of a sudden things looked bleak. But Troost-Ekong says the thought of missing a third consecutive tournament could not be countenanced.

"We had a false start against South Africa and everyone questioned whether we would still qualify or not. Which is normal because a country like Nigeria has so much expectations and so many coaches outside of our actual coach, so that was all part of it.

"But we knew that, no matter what happened, we had to put that behind us and qualify.

"Once we got on a run and played those games against Libya and finished it off against South Africa, we showed everyone that we deserved to be top of the group."

It was not an easy time for the team after that home loss to Bafana Bafana, especially because the second game was months away and sandwiched between a slew of World Cup qualifying games. The defender says it was all about strength of character.

"Top players make mistakes at every level. The best ones are the ones that keep it moving. Even if that be in the next game, if you don't have a chance to correct it in the same game that you're playing in.

"What is important is that if you play less than what you can do, that you don't completely go through the ice and tumble and fall. The best players and the best teams are the ones who can pick themselves up and go on afterwards. And that is what we did."

That strength of character will be needed when Troost-Ekong and his teammates come face to face with some world-class talent in Egypt, especially in the knockout rounds.

"You try to avoid a Cameroon or Senegal or Egypt, or Algeria," he says.

"But that shouldn't be a stumbling block. We have faced some of them and if you go there and you say you want to try and win it, inevitably you have to face one or two of those along the way, and I think now we have a team to also deal with those kinds of teams so we will see."

See, we will.

Udinese vs. Internazionale (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

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