1 July 2019
Make no mistake about it, this was no fluke win. Minnows Madagascar beat Nigeria fair and square in the last match of Group B in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Nigerians may want to convince themselves that, with six points in the bag from 1-0 wins in the two games before, the Super Eagles were already through to the next round and took their eyes off the ball. The players also had the perennial arguments with the Nigerian Football Federation over unpaid allowances and bonuses. But those excuses shouldn’t wash against the tiny Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, who were making their first ever appearance at the tournament.
How were the self-perceived giants of African football, Nigeria, slain by a the “David” of Madagascar? The simple answers lie in hard work. Alex Scott, the former England women international, said after Liverpool knocked out Barcelona in the Champions League semi finals last season: “Hard work will always beat talent if talent doesn’t work hard”. The Madagascar players put in a solid shift, played for each other and gave everything they had on that pitch. While the Nigerians seemed to stroll around thinking they had already won before the game started.
Nigeria was expected to rest some players going into the final match. But they still fielded a strong team with Mikel Obi, Odion Ighalo, Ahmed Musa, Samuel Kalu, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Ola Aina, and Oghenekaro Etebo all starting. No one epitomised what was wrong with Nigeria’s attitude more than Obi. He held on to the ball for too long and was irritated by the pressing pack of Madagascar players snapping at his heels. Obi seemed to think that his lesser-known opponents should just let him have the ball on reputation alone. He was one-paced as usual, sluggish, gave the ball away and despite playing in an advanced role, never was a goal-scoring threat either by himself or in providing an assist.
Watch the highlights below:
Only Etebo was putting in a shift in midfield, but his passes were usually addressed “to whom it may concern” rather than to team-mates. John Ogu, who played so that Wilfred Ndidi could be rested, might as well have stayed on the bench and left Nigeria with 10 men. It was Ogu’s wayward back pass after 13 minutes that caught Balogun on his heels, as Lalaïna Nomenjanahary pounced to round goalie Ikechukwu Ezenwa for the first goal.
The goal was typical of Madagascar’s well-organised approach, involving pressing in packs and putting every Nigerian player that had the ball under tremendous pressure. And the Nigerians couldn’t cope with the intensity of the Madagascar press. This was made worse by the absence of creativity in Nigeria’s game, which was clear from their first two matches.
Nigeria were also not making good use of the flanks and the pace of Musa, who kept coming inside in search of the ball and hardly ever used it well when he got it.
Madagascar mainly played on the break and could have furthered Nigeria’s embarrassment two minutes before half time after gaining possession from another misplaced pass from Ogu. A swift passing move involving four Madagascar players carved Nigeria open and ended with a shot against the side netting.
Nigeria tried to improve things after the break, bringing on Wilfred Ndidi for the ineffectual Ogu and Alex Iwobi for Obi, but the story didn’t change that much even with Madagascar tiring a bit. There was still little for Ighalo to feed on and Melvin in their goal only had one shot on target to deal with in the entire match.
Ndidi brought some steel to the Nigerian midfield but also fouled on 53 minutes about 25 yards out. Carolus Andriamahitsinoro’s effort deflected off Ndidi’s back into the far corner to prompt delirium from the players on the pitch and the entire bench. It was a lucky deflection but fortune was favouring the brave. And Nigeria’s response continued to be meek. They rarely threatened even though they had more of the ball. Madagascar continued until the last minute to put in the effort, covering a lot of ground, and crowded out any Nigeria that approached the final third.
No team at the tournament has worked this hard so far and Madagascar would give better teams than Nigeria a run for their money. By winning Group B with seven points, Madagascar also give themselves a chance of further progress beyond the last 16 because they have to play one of the supposedly weaker third placed teams from Groups A, C or D. While Nigeria faces the arguably more daunting task of squaring up against the runner-up in Group F, most likely to be their eternal rivals Ghana.
The reaction to Nigeria’s shock defeat on Twitter was predictable.
Many Nigerian fans would disagree with coach Gernot Rohr’s claims after the match that there is no shame in losing to Madagascar. The German said: “We lost to a good team because Madagascar was the first to qualify for the tournament and there is no shame in losing to such a team.
“Madagascar was the better team today. We started with giving them a gift and after, we could not find a solution. We made five changes because we wanted to give a rest to some players and also preserve those with cards.
“Sometimes it happens when you are already qualified; the players are relaxed and playing easy.”
It’s going to get a lot more difficult at the Cairo International Stadium on Saturday 6 July and Rohr needs to think long and hard about solutions to the absence of creativity and poor final ball. Another performance like we have seen from Nigeria in the group games would surely spell the end of the tournament for them.