Nigeria ride depth, central midfield partnership past Guinea and into AFCON round of 16
After missing the previous two Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria have announced their tournament return in 2019 with two wins from two. Their latest, against Guinea, was more about being efficient than spectacular. With two wins, they become the first team to reach the knockout stage of the expanded 24 team Africa Cup of Nations.
It was no less than the Super Eagles deserved for a controlled performance in which they pressured the Syli Nationale high and kept them from establishing any sort of foothold in the game, despite an edge in possession.
Let's unpack a little bit of how they got here.
What Nigeria did right
Eagles show squad depth and quality
At some point this might end up sounding like a broken record, but Gernot Rohr showed how deep his squad is by making five changes to the side which started against Burundi in the opening game and guess what, his team looked even better than they did in their opener.
Admittedly, some of those changes were forced, like Shehu Abdullahi who was ruled out through injury. But it is not always that a coach can all but dismantle his team and still have enough quality to win a game against a big rival. Barring any further injuries, Rohr will feel confident about the depth of his squad and the distance the Super Eagles can go at this tournament.
Monstrous midfield partnership
Naby Keita must be feeling like he was hit by a 10-ton truck. The duo of Wilfred Ndidi and Peter Etebo did such a number on him that the Guinea star had to go off just after 70 minutes. Some of the tackles may have been slightly reckless, but overall, they were fair, strong and unyielding.
The pair also showed that they have the potential to stand up against anything the rest of the field throws at them.
Nddi was particularly exceptional, and the only reason he probably did not claim a second man of the match honour in succession was the equally outstanding display of defender Kenneth Omeruo, whose goal just shaded it.
It's clear that Rohr, a stickler for intense study and preparations before matches, had studied Guinea. Alex Iwobi nuliified the deep playmaking distribution of Amadou Diawara. Ndidi and Etebo took turns guarding Keita and Omeruo snuffed out the threat of Sory Kaba so well that even the Guinean would not believe he was on the pitch.
Odion Ighalo kept the centre-backs honest and the rest of the team pressed high and early to disrupt the rhythm of Guinea and force their defenders into errors. It all pointed to thorough preparation from Rohr and the coaching staff.
What they did wro... Okay what they didn't do so right
Corner kick delivery
First of all, Moses Simon needs to sort out his corner kick delivery. For most of the game, his balls were falling short. Thankfully, it came good at the right time, his short corner to the near post finding Omeruo for the goal. But more work is needed. Way more work.
Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry
Iwobi dwelling on the ball when a snap ball would have left Ighalo with a simple tap-in. Ighalo himself then fell guilty of the same crime, as with Ahmed Musa all on his own, the forward chose to go for a very low percentage shot on goal.
As the tournament gets deeper, these opportunities will need to be taken. There will not be many of them.
Scoring struggles persist
It is now three goals in five games for the Super Eagles. For a team with this much attacking quality and quality personnel, that is a shocking return. Agreed, they are winning when it matters, but after a combined 87 goals for their respective clubs, surely more should be expected of this Nigeria strike force.
Winning games 1-0 is better than drawing 5-5, true, but at some point, the Super Eagles will need to outscore an opponent. Heaven help us...
Psychologist for Akpeyi?
Heres the thing, Daniel Akpeyi is not as bad a goalkeeper as he is being made out to be. Trouble is he has been conditioned to believe he is one mistake away from losing his spot.
Akpeyi made some great stops against Burundi and a couple here, although he was mostly untested, That said, it is the little niggly errors that annoy fans and media and lead to those nerve-inducing comments. He probably needs a psychologist to help him deal with whatever issues he carries around from the comments of people who don't even know him.
Looking ahead to Madagascar
Given how well his team has done, fans may suspect that Rohr will overhaul his lineup again to give his side some fresh legs.
One suspects that while the German may insert some players into the starting XI, there will be no massive overhaul as he is intent on building team cohesion within the group. Expect to see Victor Osimhen at some point or one of Ikechukwu Ezenwa or Francis Uzoho in goal.
In any case, we wait to be surprised
Oh, and no I did not forget. This will be sweet revenge for the likes of Musa, John Mikel Obi and Kenneth Omeruo after they were denied qualification to AFCON 2012 by a late Guinea goal at home in Abuja. Even former captain Joseph Yobo, now a TV studio analyst, was preening and grinning from ear to ear. Happy days.