When Riyad Mahrez sprinted several feet to curl an exquisite free-kick beyond the outstretched hands of Daniel Akpeyi at the last minute of stoppage time, in the semifinal match of the 2019 Nations Cup between Nigeria and Algeria, he ultimately succeeded in dashing the hopes of millions of Nigerian fans; hopes that the country's footballing fortunes were becoming auspicious once more following what was generally perceived a pathetic world cup display the previous year.
It was a goal that would send his Algerian team into the finals for only the third time in the history of the North African country, a final which they went on to win in an uneventfully one-sided contest against Senegal to complete their upturn in form and earn their second-ever nations cup triumph.
If there was any lesson to be gleaned from the Algerian triumph, it was the knowledge that hard work begets success. Algeria was coming on the back of a trying period and an uneventful 2017, which carried on into the first half of the 2018 calendar year. During this period, the Desert Warriors had lost nine of their nineteen matches, drawing four and winning just six. This poor run of form had culminated in the sack of erstwhile coach and football legend, Rabah Madjer with Djamel Behmadi appointed in his stead.
The appointment of Behmadi seemed to tick a sensitive spot in the team as they have gone on to record just two losses in twenty-three matches. He completely changed the team's style of play, instilling a sense of responsibility and discipline throughout the team. He created a balanced midfield, mixing experienced players like Feghouli, Guedioura, and Belkebia with youthful exuberance in Ismael Bennacer. Up front, Riyadh Mahrez was given the leeway to spearhead the team's attack, ably assisted by rejuvenated striker Bounedjah and Belaili. Simply put, the Algerians recognized their areas of deficiency and assiduously worked towards correcting it.
Nigeria clearly can take a leaf or two from their North African counterparts, who currently sit just a spot behind them on the fourth position in the recently released FIFA African rankings. A dismal showing at the eagerly anticipated 2018 world cup preceded another poor outing at the 2019 Nations Cup. Although the country had had a memorable run, receiving bronze and only failing to get to the final due to Mahrez' dexterous delivery, in the true light of things, Gernot Rohr's men had been wholly fortuitous to go as far as they did.
In their first match against Burundi, a team ranked 139th in the world and 24th in Africa, Nigeria greatly struggled to exert their dominance. The three-time African champions had just three shots on target compared to Burundi's seven and had to rely on the veteran striker, Odion Ighalo who had only come on for the ineffective Paul Onuachu in the 73rd minute to give them a late goal which they went on to protect dearly.
Of the eleven players who had started that match for the eagles, Daniel Akpeyi and John Mikel Obi were the only players not plying their trade in Europe, while for Burundi, Saido Berahino was the only notable name, but even he had been languishing on the bench of relegated English side, Stoke city prior to the Mundial.
Gernot Rohr had had more time to plan for the tournament and correct the seemingly wrong impression that had trailed his young team of being too green after their world cup campaign had come to a premature end. He had also had more sessions with his team and had been able to invite players who identified with his playing style, however, the team's all-round display was grossly lacking with an obvious over-dependence on Villarreal’s revelation, Samuel Chukwueze to come up with something extraordinary.
The next match against Guinea had a very similar ring to it with the Super Eagles dominating proceedings without any tangible outcome. On this occasion, however, it seemed Rohr had learned his lesson about Ighalo as he started the bulky forward The Shanghai Shenhua attacker remained largely quiet, though, with a defender, Kenneth Omeruo rising to the occasion to bail his lacklustre teammates.
Liverpool's midfield maestro, Naby Keita continually tormented the eagles’ backline, with the centre back pairing of Balogun and Omeruo, struggling to contain him. Alex Iwobi who had been tasked with a similar function failed desperately, with the eagles not getting their goal until the 73rd minute following Keita's withdrawal two minutes earlier.
Their final group stage game against Madagascar climaxed the ominous mood surrounding the team, with the West African giants falling to a morale-sapping 2-0 defeat to the 91st world-ranked team. Admittedly, Rohr had rested some key players after progression had been confirmed. However, excuses cannot be made for why a team with a front line of Ahmed Musa, Samuel Kalu and Odion Ighalo would deliver a performance as flat as they did. Nigerian supporters in Egypt would have definitely left the stadium disappointed as it was not a performance they had expected.
If the group matches were odious, the next match, a round-of-sixteen fixture against Cameroon, while showing newfound mettle of the team - resilience - was similarly abject. Having led through a wonderful Odion Ighalo effort, the Eagles relaxed and welcomed the Lions who scored two quickfire goals to turn the tie on its head. A team that had gotten the 19th-minute lead thus headed into the break 2-1 down. This has been the defining nature of Gernot's team - score one and ride out the storm - except on this occasion, Cameroon wouldn't settle for less.
Although credit should be given to the team for managing to stage a second-half comeback, the die had already been cast and even a 2-1 victory in their next match, a quarter-final clash against South Africa - secured courtesy of yet another late 89th-minute goal - did nothing to remove the bile that had gathered in the mouths of many Nigerians.
In their penultimate match of the tournament, the 2-1 semifinal loss to Algeria, the team was totally battered and was probably lucky to have a less humiliating record on the scoreboard. Although statistics seem to show Nigeria slightly edging Algeria on ball possession with 50.6%, in reality, Algeria had more gilt-edged chances throughout the duration of the game.
Algeria played with a clear purpose and sense of direction, continually working the ball from defence to midfield and then attack. Rather than punting the ball forward like their opponents had been doing all night, seeking to catch a serendipitous counter-attack, the North Africans strung passes cohesively, with Mahrez exposing Jamilu Collins on the right flank time and again.
Rohr could do little to inspire his side who were second best all through the encounter. As such, very few Nigerians were actually disappointed when Daniel Akpeyi was left lying deflatedly on the turf after Mahrez had scored a last-minute winner.
Post Nations Cup
Since the uneventful Nations cup ended, Nigeria has played four matches - two friendlies against Brazil and Ukraine and two nations' cup qualifiers against Lesotho and Benin Republic. In the first of these matches, a 2-2 draw against Ukraine, the Super Eagles powered themselves to a first-half 2-0 victory. The call-up handed to Rangers' prolific midfielder, Joe Aribo seemed to have galvanized the team and fixed an intrinsic part the team had hitherto been lacking. However, as has often been the case with this team of youngsters, the players soft-pedalled and allowed Ukraine to score two late goals to share the spoils.
The match against Brazil posed a different worry. Rohr knew his team would be outclassed by the South American champions, and as such, set them up to defend and push forward through intermittent counterattacks. While the super eagles are famed for having one of the best attacks in international football with pacy players like Chukwueze, Simon, Musa and more recently Osimhen to mention but a few, defending has not really been their forte. Balogun and Troost-Ekong, popularly known as the 'oyinbo wall' have had their foundation shattered severely. Omeruo, who took Balogun's place, while imperious has shown himself to be erratic, ill-disciplined and grossly lacking in positional awareness while the team's manager seems yet to know his best option at left-back, continually alternating between Collins and Aina
This has led to Rohr seeking alternative means of shoring up his backline. Semi Ajayi seems to be the perfect piece. The Anglo-Nigerian who plies his craft in England's second division with West Brom has shown his wherewithal to cope with the demands of his position. Standing at 193cm, the 27-year-old English-born defender displays great agility and aerial presence. He is also willing to serve as the last man, allowing Troost-Ekong more freedom to go forward, a feature he doesn't enjoy when paired with Omeruo. Not many players would envy debut matches against Ukraine and Brazil, but Ajayi performed exceptionally well, managing to restrict Tite's attacking team to just a goal, which came from an eighteen-yard scramble.
What should Rohr do?
As the 2019 AFCON showed, though, the defence has not really been Nigeria's Achilles. During the tournament, the team kept 3 clean sheets. Only eventually finalists, Algeria and Senegal kept more. However, strengthening the defence further wouldn't be totally unwelcomed as the solidity of a team stems from its backline.
However, Rohr must address the one basic issue that has plagued his side, and this is their lackadaisical attitude and occasionally flagrant tack of interest. The team has a penchant to either begin matches on the back foot, go off during games, start well and then reduce their intensity after gaining a lead or come back to lose or draw from winning positions.
The matches against Ukraine and Brazil succinctly emphasize the latter point while the country's first two AFCON qualifying games against Benin and Lesotho accentuates the first point. In both games, the Super Eagles conceded the first goals and had to mount comebacks. After letting Sessegnon put the Benin Republic ahead after just 5 minutes, they also allowed Lesotho to score an 11th-minute strike courtesy of Nkoto. Although their frighteningly resolute attacking force of Osimhen, Chukwueze, Iwobi, and Kalu did enough to secure the three points in both situations, the Nigerian national team cannot allow themselves be defined by this obnoxious feature.
The team is blessed with a plethora of young, viable options across almost every position, with more promising players soon to be integrated into the team. The NPFL also boasts a variety of home nurtured players should the need be. As such, despite the uncertainty surrounding Rohr's position, with the NFF yet to offer a new contract seeing as the present one expires next summer, the technical team must seek to implement character and balance in this young group.
In 2018, the Super Eagles had the youngest average squad at the world cup, as such when they exited so early, they weren't wholly criticized as it was believed the team needed time to bond and understand each other's strength. However, there hasn’t been much progress since then. Granted, since Rohr took over from the lugubrious reign of Sunday Oliseh, he has succeeded in injecting life, commitment, and a spirit of unity into the team. He has built a sturdy foundation and brought about general solace and fecundity to the country's footballing fortunes.
Still, he must do more to prove that the team is progressing; he must do more to show that he deserves the right to spearhead the country's drive for regional, continental and global success. Rohr must instil a much-needed discipline in his players
They ought to learn that the chances of conceding first and then going on to sneak a late victory occur at very slim rates. They must be groomed to understand that only teams who have an insatiable hunger and are passionately dedicated to a course achieve the positive results and not those who rest on their laurels and most importantly of all, they must be taught that while the journey of a thousand mile begins with a step, at some point you must quicken the pace else you risk either falling by the roadside or never reaching your destination.