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Less Godspeed more stagger, as Nigeria get off to laboured – but victorious – start against Burundi

Nigeria 1-0 Burundi

And that was Game One for the Super Eagles, of this embryonic African Cup of Nations tournament. For the umpteenth time in a competition, Nigeria produced a performance – and nearly a result – that quells fans optimism in the very first game of the tournament. Since the Nations Cup in 2006 – coincidentally also held in Egypt – the only time the Nigerian men’s senior side has ever won their opening game of a competition was in the Confederations Cup six years ago, and that was against a rather amateurish Tahitian national team.

Up until now. Against AFCON debutants Burundi, in Alexandria, the Eagles found the breakthrough inside the final minutes, courtesy of a brilliant back-heeled pass by Ola Aina (which the opposition defence probably should have cut out), and a calm finish by substitute Odion Ighalo. But that should by no means take away significant gloss on the fact that this was a very below-par performance.

Nigeria 1-0 Burundi
Odion Ighalo celebrates putting Nigeria ahead in Alexandria

For much of the game Nigeria were rigid, lacked any creativity or invention, and were more likely to concede than to score – two very good saves from Daniel Akpeyi kept Les Hirondelles at bay. Their greatest threats came from set-pieces, some adventure from left-back Aina, as well as the direct running by Samuel Chukwueze, yet they weren’t really that threatening.

So, what’s the reason behind this display? This lack of invention and conviction in Alexandria? Perhaps there are many; it’s the first game, and it hardly goes perfect, Nigeria are traditionally slow-starters, or the little problem that plagued many in the squad days before was a – if not the – factor. Perhaps it’s all these reasons, or one of these, reasons.

Or it could simply be that Nigeria don’t know how to break down smaller sides, especially when they deploy this 4-3-3-like formation. For most of the qualifying campaign, there was no skipper John Obi Mikel, and this led to Gernot Rohr operating with a 4-2-3-1. That pushed Alex Iwobi into the No 10 role and gave Nigeria a creative outlet, something the 4-3-3 hardly seems to do, a formation which was shown itself to more suitable for counter-attacks, which Nigeria use often.

But here against Burundi, it was the three-man central midfield, with ball winners and box-to-box midfielders, and with target-man Paul Onuachu up front, there was the indication that creativity wasn’t going to be the forte in this game.

And there’s another issue, and where Rohr comes in. For all the progress and improvement under the German, there can no denying that he favours a more cautious and conservative approach. Further proof of this lies in the full-backs never really pushing forward, particularly for almost the entirety of the qualifiers.

It’s this restrained approach that has been one of Rohr’s criticisms, but then again, maybe this is a good thing for this competition. Burundi may well be the least attack-minded the Super Eagles may face in this tournament, and with a possibility of three teams qualifying from some groups, this win has them with one foot in the knockout out stage. There, they are likely to go up against stronger opponents. Opponents of the same ilk, at least. Hence, this is where the conservatism and plan to hit on the break may well bear fruit.

Until that potential future, though, there will be scepticism, particularly if the next game, against Guinea in four days, produces a hardly better display. Because right now, it’s not quite Godspeed. Right now, Nigeria are dipping just a foot into this AFCON waters.

Kunle Ajao63 Posts

Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not

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