Super Eagles flying while AFCON rivals stumble

Nigeria fans must be pinching themselves. Surely this must be a dream.

In an Africa Cup of Nations which has proven to be not just the most unpredictable but has presented the most perilous of circumstances for Africa’s big teams, Nigeria have emerged as the standard bearer of respect for the continent’s flailing giants.

Ghana, Algeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast have struggled mightily against middling opposition. To the point where the defending champions find themselves now locked in what would be a death match with the Elephants for a place in the round of 16.

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Ghana were sent home on Tuesday by lowly Comoros, losing 3-2 where they desperately needed to win, and leaving an entire nation shell shocked.

Senegal may have topped their group, but they did so by the skin of their teeth: The difference between Senegal’s five points that secured progress and three draws that would have meant an early flight home being a late penalty against Zimbabwe in their opening game.

Nigeria on the other hand, who would have thought it?

On Wednesday, the Super Eagles made light work of swatting aside the threat of Guinea Bissau to complete their 100% record in the group phase, and become the only one of the 24 teams in Cameroon to claim all maximum points on offer.

It means Augustine Eguavoen matches the mark he set in 2006, of becoming the only Super Eagles coach to win all three group games at AFCON.

It also means Nigeria fans are now left actually contemplating the prospect of a fourth African title with genuine belief, where prior to the tournament, they would have been happy just to have seen their team show up.

But Eguavoen was having none of that.

With qualification to the round of 16 secured after their matchday two victory over Sudan, the coach went into Nigeria’s final group with two objectives, to extend his unbeaten record at the AFCON group stages and to gauge the depth of his squad as they prepare for much sterner examination of their ambitions in the games to come.

The ex-Eagles captain took the bold step of making eight changes to the starting lineup.

When former boss Gernot Rohr did the same in 2019 — he made five changes at the time — the Super Eagles got their behinds handed to them by Madagascar in an embarrassing defeat which left them having to face arch-rivals Cameroon in the round of 16.

For a spell, it looked like history would find a way to play a dirty joke on the Eagles as the first half finished scoreless and with the underdogs having served notice enough through Fernando Barbosa with a close header.

But the one thing Nigeria have that the other giants so far do not seem to, is a rejuvenated and in-form Moses Simon.

One of the most maligned players under the previous coach, the Nantes man has been unplayable so far, and he proved it again, orchestrating one goal and flummoxing the opposition defence to almost add a second as Nigeria claimed a 2-0 win.

He now has one goal and three assists in two and half games. Simon is the ultimate poster boy for this new look Super Eagles team, playing with a verve, energy, freedom and explosiveness that is the hallmark of Nigeria teams from the past.

Happy as Eguavoen would have been for his wide forward, there were a lot of other things that he would have found pleasing.

Semi Ajayi was strong at the back and unlucky not to score. Tyronne Ebuehi defended solidly at right-back and offered plenty of attacking threat and width. Kelechi Nwakali may not be the midfield dominator fans expect of him yet, but he is on well on his way with his simple and economical movement. Chidera Ejuke still has work to do on his decision-making and Sadiq Umar, despite his goal, has not convinced Nigerians yet.

For a man who did not have enough time with his squad pre-tournament, this was a useful exercise for Eguavoen. The most important lesson, for a man who lost three good strikers — including the qualifying top scorer Victor Osimhen, last tournament’s top scorer Odion Ighalo and the Belgian league top scorer Paul Onuachu — was an inability to finish.

“We always create chances,” he said. “The problem is finishing them off. That is what we have to keep working on as we go further.”

With Osimhen in this team, and the form of Simon, the Super Eagles could well have cruised to the top of the podium with ease. And they still could, if Taiwo Awoniyi can get the break his intelligent play so richly deserves.

In terms of depth, the Nigeria coach was more than pleased with what he saw.

“You can see that we have a team of more than 11 players,” he said. “Anybody that is given a chance at any time can always come in and do very well.”

After the slip ups by their contemporaries, Nigeria are now side by side with Cameroon as favorites for the AFCON title. Eguavoen admits that but says the focus will remain the same,

“I would say we take it game after game. We respect our opponents but we go full force and try to get maximum points,” he said. “First of all, the mission is, ‘Don’t lose the game.’

“And then after that we can try to get the goals to win.”

Defender William Troost-Ekong, whose goal put the seal on the victory, said the team was growing in confidence.

“The confidence in the team is growing,” he said. “Before the tournament started there were a lot of question marks about Nigeria’s chances and I felt we have enjoyed the position as underdogs.”

With the group stage over, there are no guarantees going into the knockout rounds where a single slip could prove terminal. But Nigerians are enjoying renewed confidence in their team and that, if nothing else, will count as a win for Eguavoen.

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