New Sierra Leone captain, defender Steven Caulker, says qualifying for Ivory Coast will be a difficult task for the West African side who made a promising return to AFCON in Cameroon last January-February.
After playing in England's youth teams, the defender, on loan to Gaziantep from Turkish Süper Lig team Fenerbahçe, will lead the troops in these qualifiers which will pit Sierra Leone against Nigeria, Guinea Bissau and the winner of Mauritius-Sao Tome and Principe
Sierra Leone will open the qualifiers against Nigeria, three-time African champions against whom they drew two times (4-4 and 0-0) in the qualifiers for the previous African Cup of Nations.
After Nigeria, Sierra Leone will host Guinea Bissau in the Guinean capital a few days later.
The 30-year-old Caulker said he was ready to take on the challenge "again against the best nations in African football".
"It would be difficult but I'm excited to start these qualifiers, we have a lot of new talent, new players, a new system and a new identity. I am really delighted to be able to lead this group in qualifying," explained the central defender in an interview with the media of his country.
The former Liverpool and Tottenham centre-back, who made his international debut for the Leone Stars in the 0-0 match against Algeria at the TotalEnergies AFCON in Cameroon, has admitted that there is no easy match in African football.
"Our qualifying group is going to be tough, obviously Nigeria will be looking to bounce back from their disappointment following their elimination to Ghana in the 2022 World Cup," explained the new Sierra Leonean captain.
The qualifiers will therefore be a way to forget the disappointment so it will be a revengeful and difficult to manoeuvre around the Nigeria team which will be in front, analysed Steven Caulker. The other selections of group A, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome or Mauritius, are far from being stooges, added captain Caulker.
Sierra Leone is part of the teams forced to play away, since no stadium has been approved in their territory. Still, Caulker wants to stay positive even though he longed to play in front of the many fans in Sierra Leone.
"To be honest, I would have loved to play in front of our fans in Sierra Leone, but that's how it is, we have to be ready. It's always good to face the best, it creates that challenge," he said.
"We have to be at our best for every game and against Nigeria is an opportunity to put Sierra Leone on the world football map. I'm sure like we did in the last AFCON, we have to be at our best for all games, not just against Nigeria, we should go into every game with the ambition to win it", he continued.
Steven Caulker was named Sierra Leone captain during their March training camp in Turkey.
Sierra Leone lost 0-3 to Togo before winning against Liberia (1-0) and Congo (2-1) during the FIFA international break in March.