Super Eagles fall short against Algeria, but will know they could have done more
Well, that’s over. After a tournament in which Nigeria showed more passion than conviction, and gave more drama than quality, the Super Eagles’ African Cup of Nations journey has just about reached the end of the road. Just about? There’s still a small matter of a third/fourth place play-off against Tunisia, which is most likely to be more of an attempt from both managers to pick their sides from such crushing semi-final blows than anything else.
Tunisia lost to Senegal in extra-time after 90 minutes that saw both teams miss penalties, and their defeat was courtesy an own goal. For Nigeria, it was the most sickening blow you could think of, a 94th-minute free-kick from Riyad Mahrez that was so brilliant, you could excuse its heart-shattering nature, and yet so gut-wrenching, you could be forgiven for not giving a toss about its brilliance. It was the last act in Cairo and consigned Nigeria to defeat, one which, in truth, wasn’t undeserved.
For most of the tournament, Nigeria have limped over the finish line rather than soar past opponents. Against Burundi in the first game, we had Odion Ighalo to thank for bagging three points in such a laborious affair, while the next game against Guinea saw improvements but still left room for much more. Against Cameroon in the Last 16, it was an end-to-end drama that highlighted vulnerabilities at the back, while the quarter-final win against South Africa saw the Eagles manage to keep the Bafana Bafana at arm’s length, and yet never look secure. Either side of those four games was a listless defeat against Madagascar.
One of Nigeria’s best qualities since Gernot Rohr took charge was looking hard to beat, especially against fellow African teams. The Super Eagles have never the most attacking side under the German but are hard to break down, difficult to play against, and dangerous on the break.
Here against Algeria, though, virtually none of those traits were on show. Algeria enjoyed played against Nigeria, the defence was quite at sixes and sevens, and the attacking plan seemed to rest on lumping the ball to an isolated Ighalo. When Algeria took the lead via a William Troost-Ekong own goal just before halftime, it was quite deserved, while Nigeria’s 66th equaliser, from an Ighalo penalty, came at a time when we didn’t quite look like scoring. Then again, we never quite looked scoring.
It was typical of the relatively underwhelming displays that we had shown in this tournament, and had previously gotten away with. And as it more often than not is with such displays, there’s only so many times you can keep getting away with them. Algeria have been the best side in this tournament so far, finally matching their star-studded squad that play silk football, with solidity, organisation and the ability to keep it together.
When Nigeria faced a side with these qualities, they looked very much second best and if the Mahrez goal was heart-breaking, it was also, in all candour, the least we deserved. There were improvements after halftime, but that stemmed mostly from Algeria’s decision to retreat, and even then Nigeria barely threatened.
And as Rohr and his side prepare for a relatively meaningless third-place game against another North African side, they’ll no doubt no they were outclassed by the Desert Foxes. A semi-final defeat is by no means a failure, despite what many cynics who’ll call for Rohr’s head believe, but Nigeria will know that when they stood close to the AFCON final, they didn’t show enough. Losing at this stage is hard enough, losing while knowing you could have given more is sickening.
Kunle Ajao121 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