26 June 2019
Nigeria’s Super Eagles became the first team to qualify for the last 16 of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with big thanks to a Kenneth Omeruo glancing header that helped his country beat Guinea in the second round of matches in Group B in Alexandria, Egypt.
It was another late show for Nigeria as they followed up the 1-0 win against Burundi with another 1-0 from defender Omeruo’s goal following a Moses Simon delivery from corner in the 73rd minute.
Nigeria seemed more balanced and played better this time around than last Saturday, with skipper Mikel Obi, who was disappointing against Burundi, relegated to the bench and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi moved from the flanks to a more central role, supporting striker Odion Ighalo, who scored the winner in the first game. Ahmed Musa, also a sub in the last match, and Moses Simon started to the left and right of Ighalo.
With the hardworking duo of Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi at the centre of the park, there was a more solid feel to Nigeria to nullify the threat from Guinea’s star player from Liverpool, Naby Keita, but little fluency in the first half. Creative responsibility fell mostly on Iwobi but he was out of sorts today. Just three minutes in, he fluffed his lines trying to control a pass inside the box that should have been hit first time. Ighalo also failed to control a pass that would have given Nigeria the lead.
Watch the highlights below.
Iwobi continued to give the ball away and one of his errors nearly led to a chance for Guinea but for the smart intervention of Leon Balogun, making his first appearance in the tournament alongside Omeruo, after William Troost-Ekong was injured in the first game. The two central defenders hardly put a foot wrong.
Nigeria was not creating much upfront, but had the better of the first half chances. After the half hour mark, Ighalo broke down the right and shot from a tight angle instead of squaring to Musa, who was free for a tap-in. Five minutes later Iwobi stung the palms of the Guinea keeper with a shot from long range.
Guinea threatened just before the break and started better after the interval. But Nigeria always seemed like they could go up a gear. Musa beat two defenders down the left but was let down by his crossing once again. Etebo also came close with a free-kick after 66 minutes before Keita limped off four minutes later. Three minutes after Keita’s exit Omeruo literally rose to the occasion. Nigeria’s set-pieces had been poor all match prior to Omeruo’s moment. But this time the delivery from Simon was inch-perfect and Omeruo scored his first goal for his country after 44 appearances.
Despite stories from the Nigerian camp about the players being owed their allowances and bonuses and threatening to go on strike, the Super Eagles have made it two out of two and sit comfortably on the top of Group, and can afford to use the last group match on Sunday against minnows Madagascar to give some squad players game time. Stronger tests lurk in the knockout rounds.
Coach Gernot Rohr must get his team to work harder at keeping the ball. They seem to have a solid defensive base to protect jittery keeper Daniel Akpeyi, but the team is not creating enough chances and much of this is down to poor decision-making. The return to fitness of Bordeaux winger Samuel Kalu, who got a few minutes today after his dehydration scare, shows that Nigeria could have more creative options, especially down the flanks. Henry Onyekuru, another winger, who is on loan to Galatasaray from Everton, awaits his chance to show what he’s capable off. There is also Samuel Chukwueze from Villareal, who showed flashes of brilliance in the first game, and replaced Iwobi today as Nigeria tried to run down the clock towards the end.
The coach said in his post-match remarks that the heat affected their rhythm. He was also pleased that Nigeria scored from a corner, saying it reflected the work they have put in training.
The team has the potential to go far. How far remains to be seen. But that potential has to start delivering championship performances as the tournament moves towards the business end.