By the end of matchday two of the Africa Cup of Nations, a Round of 16 matchup between Nigeria and Cameroon was likely the furthest thing from anybody’s mind, as these two giants of African football looked poised to top their groups.
Nigeria were sitting pretty in Group B after gleaning six points of out of six. A final group game against Madagascar appeared little more than a formality to seal group leadership, as the Super Eagles only required a result to assure themselves top spot.
The Indomitable Lions did not have quite the same certainty, even though they led their own group, requiring a win in their own final group match against Benin.
It all looked pretty straightforward.
And then they both fluffed things up. Royally. Starting with Nigeria. The Eagles looked anything but super as they slunk to a 2-0 defeat against Madagascar, a country with few professional players. The result left both countries in stunned disbelief.
Two days later, defending champions Cameroon completed their part of the bizarre bargain by being held to a 0-0 draw against Benin.
That unexpected combo of results set the stage for another iteration of what has become one of African football’s greatest rivalries, albeit much earlier than anyone would have predicted.
The rivalry has played out to different outcomes in 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004 and more recently during the qualifying series for the 2018 World Cup, mostly favouring Cameroon.
It is a fixture that has been tinged with controversy over the years, beginning with that 1988 game when Henry Nwosu’s headed goal was inexplicably disallowed, and culminating in 2000 when Victor Ikpeba’s kick in the Afcon final penalty shootout was also disallowed, despite replays showing the ball crossed the line.
However, these issues will be of little concern to the current generation of players, all of whom will now be under some pressure to advance on Saturday.
It is especially true for Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr. Sources have told ESPN that the German’s job is hanging on a semifinal thread, meaning he has to negotiate a way past not just Cameroon but also possibly hosts and title favorites Egypt.
Cameroon are the immediate threat, and there is no escaping the win-or-go-home pressure that hangs over the squad. So what do Rohr and his team have to do?
– Africa Cup of Nations: All you need to know
– Full Africa Cup of Nations fixtures schedule
SUPER EAGLES DOs
Pick the right team
Nigeria’s doomed game against Madagascar began with the selection. Having qualified for the knockout phase, Rohr seemed to underestimate the islanders, despite having studied their games from the qualifiers and admitting they were a strong team.
Starting the languid duo of John Obi Mikel and John Ogu in midfield against such a dynamic, high-pressing opposition was an invitation for disaster. A fit and in-form Mikel may just have pulled it off with the energy of Oghenekaro Etebo beside him, but the current version of him just could not. And when he picked up a knee injury during the game, all was lost. By the time Rohr introduced Wilfred Ndidi, it was too late.
Against Cameroon, Rohr can afford no such flights of fancy. Starting his strongest team is a no-brainer. Restoring Kenneth Omeruo to the starting lineup is imperative. As is bringing back the energy and tackling of Ndidi to join up with Etebo.
Contrary to popular opinion, Odion Ighalo must start. He has the experience and the quality to cause problems for the Cameroon defense. But Victor Osimhen has to see action at some point, too.
And why, in the name of Pele, has Henry Onyekuru not seen minutes at this tournament? He surely has to have a starting spot in the wide areas, along with Ahmed Musa. His speed, his balance, his ability to pop up in the right areas of the box and finishing must be something to consider.
Start and play strong
Watching that game against Madagascar, one could barely believe how lethargic the Nigerians looked. They were slow on the ball, bested in 50-50 tackles, could hardly retrieve second balls, and looked, for the most part, second best. The Malagasy always looked a step ahead.
Cameroon will be just as strong and will very definitely bring high energy to the game. The Indomitable Lions may have looked unconvincing in group play, but coming up against Nigeria in competition always seems to awaken their most feral competitive instincts. This time is unlikely to be any different.
There will be no quarters asked, none given. Blood and thunder is guaranteed, and faint hearts might want to head for the stands.
Create chances, then actually score the goals
Two goals in three games is a disgraceful return for a team of the attacking caliber of the Super Eagles. And lest we forget, one of those two goals was scored by a defender. The other was created by a defender.
This state of affairs cannot continue. They created six chances against Madagascar but took none. They created just two against Guinea, and a grand total of one in their opening game against debutants Burundi.
The good news is that the numbers have improved. The bad news is that the efficiency has gone down.
Both numbers have to go up against Cameroon. Rohr has to figure out a way to get his forward line to open up opportunities in the opposing area, and then to take them with clinical efficiency.
And while doing so, there can be no errors at the back.
Leon Balogun has taken responsibility for the mistake that led to the first goal for Madagascar, but he was only the final link in a chain of mistakes.
First the Nigerians allowed themselves to get squeezed into a corner, then John Ogu decided to make a high risk back pass to Balogun, who admittedly reacted late. That cannot happen against Cameroon.
SUPER EAGLES DON’Ts
Do not lose. It is that simple. DO. NOT. LOSE!
It’s win or go home. For Rohr, that might also mean never coming back.