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Odion Ighalo celebrates his early goal with Ahmed Musa

AFCON 2019: Nigeria finishes third after 1-0 win over Tunisia, with fans wondering what could have been

18 July 2019

The third place playoff is the match no semi-finalist wants to play in.  Nigeria and Tunisia had to settle for this meaningless battle for the wooden spoon after succumbing to Algeria and Senegal last Sunday.  You wouldn’t have known this from how coach Gernot Rohr celebrated at the final whistle, grinning from ear to ear like the cat who got the cream.  He always said his target was to reach the semis and it appeared, especially against Algeria on Sunday, that the coach was limiting the Super Eagles by his low expectations.

Many Nigerian fans and their players go into tournaments believing they can win it.  Even approaching into their first ever World Cup in 1994, players such as Jay-Jay Okocha were claiming that they were capable of winning the trophy.  When asked if he will be marking Diego Maradona against Argentina, Okocha replied that Maradona was the one who should mark him!  This sort of self belief, some say arrogance, is typical of a Nigeria player.  They play to win.  Rohr’s mindset in this tournament has been about playing to avoid losing.

That said, Nigeria started on the front foot against Tunisia and were more adventurous, perhaps, freed from the pressure of the high stakes seen during the semi-final, or because the opponents were not as gifted as Algeria.  That bright start led to the only goal of the game after just three minutes.  A flowing Nigerian move resulted in Jamilu Collins breaking down the left and his cross was parried by keeper Moez Ben Cherifia against his own defender, with Odion Ighalo on hand to stab in the rebound for his fifth goal of the tournament.

Watch the highlights below.

Ighalo, despite dividing opinion among Nigerian fans, is now hot favourite to finish as the tournament’s top scorer.  His closest challengers, on three goals a piece, Riyad Mahrez, Adam Ounas and Sadio Mane of Algeria and Senegal, have a chance to catch up in the final. Sadly for Ighalo, he was unable to add to his tally as he limped off with what looked like a hamstring injury as half-time approached.

Before then, Peter Etebo had wasted two free-kicks in succession with poor delivery.

Nigeria threatened three minutes after the hour mark with a shot from range by Samuel Chukwueze that Cherfia turned round the post.  Moses Simon replaced the captain Ahmed Musa, who failed to make his mark in this tournament, in the 74th minute.  Six minutes later Victor Osimhen, the replacement for the injured Ighalo at half time, came close.  With a minute left of regulation time, Samuel Kalu came in for Chukwueze.  Rohr seemed to have remembered that he is allowed three substitutions!  He only made one against Algeria in the last match.

Kalu nearly scored with his first touch from a free-kick that was tipped over and another free-kick effort a minute later was also saved.

It was a better performance than what was served up against Algeria and at the final whistle, Rohr celebrated like he’d won the trophy. 

However, not that many Nigerian fans would have settled for third best.  They will be wondering what could have been if the coach had taken the shackles off the team, had been more positive and played to Nigeria’s strengths.  Rohr was pleased with himself after the match: “We are satisfied with the third place – we managed to beat Africa’s second best team. It was hard so we’re good with it.  I told the players that winning a small final is better than losing a big one.  I’m very positive about the future”.  By all indications, most Nigerian fans would not want him to be part of the Super Eagles’ future, mainly for his safety-first conservatism that means he is just not a good fit for those crying out for a more exuberant style.

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