The Super Eagles finished third at the just concluded Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt with some heart-wrenching displays which left many wondering if there could be a return of the good old days when the Eagles rose to the fifth position in the world before the 1994 World Cup in the US. However, with some players standing out in a team made up of debutants in Egypt, ADEYINKA ADEDIPE examines the performance of each player and what to expect shortly.
What is in a bronze medal especially if a team has won it eight times at one of football’s elite competitions? It may mean a lot to those who were winning it for the first time in the team, while it would serve as consolation for senior members of the team who had won gold in the past.
And that is the story of the Super Eagles’ team that finished third at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt recently. Three players – Mikel Obi, the skipper who retired at the end of the championship, wing wizard Ahmed Musa and resurgent central defender Kenneth Omeruo – were all members of the gold-winning 2013 squad in South Africa under the guidance of another Super Eagles great, Late Stephen Keshi.
While not condemning the team for picking up bronze considering that over 90 per cent of the squad made their Nation Cup debut in Egypt, the brand of football played under Coach Gernot Rohr, which put the fans on the edge throughout the tournament, was heart-wrenching to watch. It was difficult to identify the Eagles with a particular style of play and the loss to Madagascar in the final group game was a huge wake-up call, which must have propelled the Eagles to another uninspiring their place finish.
Despite the disjointed performance, the second half effort of the Eagles in the 3-2 win over defending champions, Lions of Cameroon in the second round will rank as the team’s best. After going down 2-1 in the first half, two quick goals from Odion Ighalo and Alex Iwobi in the 63rd and 66th minute respectively settled the match in favour of the Nigerian team, the come-back win, a big morale-booster for a stuttering team.
With Mikel and Ighalo retired (though there are still doubts over Ighalo’s), and Rohr looking for a replacement for the duo of ‘calamity’ Leon Balogun and ineffective John Ogu, here is a looks at the performance of the players in Egypt what the future hold for the team. Each of the players made almost $60, 000 for their third-place finish, a figure not0too-bad considering that the Senegalese got $34, 000 dollars each for finishing second.
Francis Uzoho (Anorthosis Famagusta, Cyprus) – The former number one shot-stopper who lost his place due to erratic performances in qualifiers and his inability to feature regularly for his team in Europe was demoted to the third choice and only featured in the third-place 1-0 win over Tunisia.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Katsina United, Nigeria) – Ezenwa, the only home-based player in the team, was in goal in the shocking 2-0 defeat to Madagascar in the last group game. The agile goalkeeper, who could be strikers’ nightmare on his good day, was beaten twice thanks to a Leon Balogun jejune defensive mistake and a free-kick which ricochet off a Super Eagles’ player into the net. The goals were not his fault but a result of poor team performance.
Daniel Akpeyi (Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa) – Despite his years of experience, Akpeyi still does not exude confidence as his shaky performances could be a nightmare for his teammates. However, with two clean sheets in the competition, he was Rohr best option in goal. He was in inspiring form in the first game Burundi. He rescued Eagles on a couple of occasions with point-blank saves as the Burundian has six shots on target, while he also kept out the Guineans forays in the second game. He also put in a good shift against the Cameroonians and made a point-blank save in the second when the Eagles were leading, while also punching the ball to safety in the dying moments of the game. However, an attempt to stop a harmless shot with his feet almost back-fired, a pointer to his erratic performance. He capped off his performance with a good save and poor positioning, which led to Algeria’s winning goal in the 95th minute in the semifinal.
Olaoluwa Aina (Torino FC, Italy) – Apart from his impressive defensive solidity, Aina his playing more like a modern-day wing-back who joins the attack at a blistering pace and recovering on time to perform his defensive duties. He featured most of the games and emerged as of the stand-out performers in an average Eagles’ team. He provided the assist in the 1-0 win over Burundi with a no-look backheel pass. A mazy run by Aina in the closing stages of the second half should have resulted in a goal.
Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor FC, Turkey) – Injury reduced the participation of Shehu who was stretchered out in the first game against Burundi. He is a good player when he is fit but he had to endure a torrid time at the competition as he failed to recover from his injury.
Chidozie Awaziem (Caykur Rizespor, Turkey) –Since he got into the national team, his performance in Egypt would rank as the best for the Eagles. He has endured heavy criticism in the past but he has churned out good performances since taking over the right-back position after Shehu’s injury. Awaziem, who can also play as a centre back, should become more confident if he continues with this fine form after AFCON.
William Troost-Ekong (Udinese FC, Italy) – Troost-Ekong had a fairly good performance in the games he has featured in. scoring the decisive goal in the 2-1 win over South Africa in the quarter-final. He partnered Leon Balogun and Kenneth Omeruo in the heart of Eagles’ defence but his defensive partnership with Kenneth Omeruo fared better. His quality is not in doubt but he will have to raise his game to become super regular in the team.
Leon Balogun (Brighton & Hove Albion, England) – Balogun horrendous mistake which gifted Madagascar their opening game in the 2-0 defeat of the Eagles will hunt the defender for a long time. Balogun misjudged a pass and what should have been a routine clearance by the defender was wrongly executed giving the Madagascar striker the chance to bury the Eagles. That mistake may have caused him in the team as the coach is already looking for his replacement.
Kenneth Omeruo (CD Leganes, Spain) – He was the mainstay of the Eagles’ defence since the competition began. Once touted as the floundering defender, his move to Leganes seems to have revived Omeruo’s confidence and performed beyond expectation. He read opposition moves better, while his link-up play with the midfield has been fantastic. He also crowned his effort with the only goal against Guinea, while whoscored.com rated him the second-best (8.09) after the group games.
But against Cameroon, his two defensive lapses led to goals against Nigeria. However, he returned to his best against South Africa and should become a major force in the Eagles.
Jamilu Collins (SC Padeborn 07, Germany) – He featured at the later stages of the championship after shaking off a nagging injury he copped in the build-up to the championship. He gave his best in those games, but he is a player for the future.
Mikel John Obi (Trabzonspor FC, Turkey) – The best news for Mikel is his transfer to Trabzonspor FC, Turkey while playing for the Eagles in Egypt. The midfield maestro, who would be remembered for his success with Chelsea, failed to boss any of the two games he featured in and he had to be substituted against Burundi. The 2013 winning-midfielder should move to Turkey to begin a fresh challenge in what appear to be the closing stages of his career.
Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England) – Ndidi’s performance in the defensive midfield position bring grit to the Eagles defence. He reads and intercept passes quite well and also can deliver passes to the striker. He may not have the fancy footwork of the likes of Iwobi or Ighalo but he is never found wanting when playing for the Eagles just like he did against Cameroon and the other games he played.
Oghenekaro Etebo (Stoke City FC, England) – The former Warri Wolves player was the shining light of the team in Egypt. His robust approach earned him plaudits in the competition and he has played every minute in the championship. He may lack the dribbling skill of Okocha but he makes up for it with his all-round display. He doesn’t shy away from taking on combative opponents and was crucial to Nigeria’s third place in Egypt.
John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel) – he made an appearance at the AFCON against Madagascar. One would have thought that the injury to Mikel would have been in his favour, but Iwobi stepped up to take the No 10 role perfectly well to deny Ogu a run in the team. He made a second-half appearance against Madagascar.
Ahmed Musa (Al Nassar FC, Saudi Arabia) – Pace is Musa’s biggest asset though he dribbles so well leaving his markers biting the dust. He has assisted some goals but he never got on the scorers’ sheet. He changed the game when he came in for a struggling Mikel against Burundi. He provided the assist for Ighalo’s second goal against Cameroun and could have scored a goal but was denied by Onana.
Victor Osimhen (Royal Charleroi SC, Belgium) – The young striker featured in few games at the tournament but he is a player of the feature if he stays in form and injury-free.
Moses Simon (Levante FC, Spain) – Played a few games, showed flashes of what he can do in the three games. His dribble runs are vital but his last passes have let him down a couple of times. However, against Cameroun, he wasn’t able to dribble his way around the defence and was withdrawn for Samuel Chukwueze. He also played in other games but failed to score.
Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray SK, Turkey) – He has proved overtime with club sides that he is a fantastic player but had one substitute appearance in the semi-final against Algeria. His lie-on-the-floor defensive antics went viral and made him a sensation on the internet. The inspiring attacker will have to wait for a little no longer to become a mainstay in the team.
Odion Ighalo (Shanghai Shenhua, China) – He emerged the highest goalscorer in the AFCON with five goals. The main striker of the team scored once in the group stage against Burundi and two against Cameroon in the second round and provided one assist for Iwobi. He was not fit to start the opening game but once he got in for Paul Onuachu, he latched onto a backheel pass from Ola Aina to score a beautiful goal. He was also the top scorer in the AFCON qualify and his retirement (?) means Rohr, if he stays on the job, looks for another lethal attacker.
Alexander Iwobi (Arsenal FC, England) – Iwobi rose to deliver his best performance against Cameroon after a lethargic start to the competition. He marshalled the Eagles midfield perfectly against Cameroon linking up with Ighalo, Musa and Chukwueze in the attack. He also got the winning goal from an Ighalo assist to crown his efforts. He also did well in the later stages of the competition especially against South Africa and Tunisia.
Samuel Kalu (Girondins Bordeaux, France) – When he collapsed in training a few days to the beginning of the tournament, it was not clear whether he would take part in the championship. However, he was cleared by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and he has shown flashes in a few games he has played. He also forced the Tunisian goalkeeper to make a save after he came on as a substitute in the third-place game.
Paul Onuachu (FC Midtjyland, Denmark) – Despite scoring on his debut against Egypt in Warri in the build-up the 2019 AFCON, Onuachu found the going tough in Egypt. He started the opening match against Burundi and was substituted for Ighalo, who made the number nine position his own. He made substitute appearances but will have to polish his game if he hopes to become the main striker in the Eagles in the coming year.
Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal FC, Spain) -The prodigy showed the stuff he was made off when he was introduced against Cameroon in the second half. His beautiful runs down the right flank caused the Cameroonians lots of problems. Before then, he had made a couple of appearances, but his never-say-die attitude was visible against the Cameroonians where he also helped in defence. He should have an assist against Cameroun but Ighalo fluffed the beautiful pass from Chukwueze. He finally crowned his effort with the opening goal against South Africa in the quarter-final. He is surely a player for the future.
With the draws of the Qatar 2022 coming up on Monday in Cairo, the shape of the Nigerian team will emerge from the early stages of the qualifiers with young and energetic players expected to play a major role in taking Nigeria to the oil-rich country for another shot at the trophy, which has continued to elude Africa.