15 July 2019
Nigeria knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2-1 defeat to a much-better Algeria
In the end, the quality of captain Riyad Mahrez and Algeria was all too much for a disjointed Nigeria in a pulsating Africa Cup of Nations semi-final in Cairo last night. Despite the gulf in class between both teams, the game was won with virtually the last kick of the match, four minutes into added time as Nigeria clung desperately in hope for extra time. With the match delicately poised at 1-1, Nigeria failed to clear their lines under sustained Algerian pressure. Wilfred Ndidi’s poor control allowed Algeria to gain possession through Ismael Bennacer and the midfielder was clipped just outside the box by Peter Etebo. Mahrez then delivered the coup de grace with his trusty left foot, via the side of the wall that goalie Daniel Akpeyi should have been protecting.
Akpeyi is not the sort of keeper that wins you matches with his saves. You are always left with a nagging feeling that he concedes goals that other international standard keepers should save. But with the match still goalless he managed to keep his country in the game after 28 minutes following a clanger by defender Kenneth Omeruo. The Chelsea defender, on loan to Leganes in Spain, failed to clear a long ball over the top, with the hardworking Baghdad Bounedjah breathing down his neck. The striker dispossessed Omeruo and was clean through one on one with Akpeyi, only to shoot straight at the goalie, who was happy that the ball bounced off his chest.
Watch the highlights below.
It was an incredibly nervy start for Nigeria, with the usually assured right-back Chidozie Awaziem having a nightmare. The Nigerian defence struggled to cope with the diagonal balls played out of the Algerian defence, the hard running of Bounedjah and the movement and inventiveness of the Algerian midfield. While Manchester City’s Mahrez was having a relatively quiet game, his presence on the right meant that Nigerian left-back Jamilu Collins could not bomb forward in support of winger Ahmed Musa on the left of the Nigerian attack. Musa hardly did that much tracking back and the few times he got possession in threatening areas, repeated the story of his tournament by making the wrong decision. He was wearing the captain’s armband but was not inspiring his team-mates with his contributions. Coach Gernot Rohr has had his judgment questioned over substitutions and it was mystifying that the ineffectual Musa was not hauled off. Rohr bafflingly only made one substitution all game.
Nigeria’s midfield with Ndidi and Etebo just couldn’t get a foothold in the game. Alex Iwobi seemed the player that could offer some inspiration and fashioned Nigeria’s best chance of the half from a break in the 37th minute, finding Nigeria’s top marksman Odion Ighalo, who pulled his effort wide. Three minutes later Algeria took the lead. Mahrez isolated himself with Collins and outwitted the defender, who still managed to recover enough to slightly deflect the winger’s cross, only for it to be deflected into the Nigerian net off William Troot-Ekong. Despite the fluky nature of the goal, it was a well-deserved lead for Algeria.
Nigeria improved after the break but still struggled to find coherence and Musa’s game was riddled with bad decisions. Ighalo, while starved of service, was involved in Nigeria’s unexpected equaliser. His presence unnerved defender Aissa Mandi into blocking a pass with his hand. The foul was only spotted after a lengthy VAR review and the penalty was coolly dispatched by Ighalo in the 71st minute, for his fourth goal of the tournament. But Nigeria failed to impose themselves following that setback for Algeria, despite Henry Onyekuru coming on with 13 minutes left for the ineffective Samuel Chukwueze. Iwobi shot from range with 10 minutes left when Ighalo seemed to be waiting for a pass. Onyekuru also shot wide with three minutes left. In a match of this magnitude, with many Nigerian players operating as passengers, it was shocking that only Onyekuru came on as a sub.
The best chances were coming to the more composed Algerians as extra time loomed. Sofia Feghouli came close a minute after Onyekuru’s chance. Then Bennacer crashed a shot against the post in injury time before Mahrez put his stamp on the game sending Algeria through to the final against Senegal.
Nigeria will face Tunisia in the meaningless third place playoff on Wednesday night and Rohr will also face questions about his timid approach to big matches. His Algerian opposite number Djamel Belmadi only took over as coach in August last year and he has got his team playing in a way that Rohr can’t even dream about, despite the German having had a three-year advantage to fine tune Nigeria. Rohr, with his history of coaching continental minnows such as Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso, has brought a “small team” mentality to coaching Nigeria. He regularly treats his team as underdogs, talking down their chances, and this has led to approaching games with the negligent mindset of playing on the counter. Nigeria clearly doesn’t have the type of defensive concentration and a goalie to invite pressure and the majority of their counter-attacks fizzle out because of a poor final ball.
Rohr’s supporters may claim that he is handicapped by the talent at his disposal. This is certainly not the Nigeria of Jay-Jay Okocha, Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu and so on. But Rohr has clearly not made the best of what he has available. It is hard to see any Nigerian player that is performing better because of the coach. Teams like Madagascar have played better football, showed more invention, better teamwork and organisation than Nigeria, despite having players of lesser quality. This must be on the coach’s head. The football is just as disjointed as it was the day he took over. Preparation for tournaments in terms of organising friendlies and so on may have improved but the football has disappointingly not got better.
Nigerian fans want to see attacking, possession-based football and it is clear that Rohr is not capable of producing this. His instincts are to “park the bus” and he said after the match: “We are sad we lost, the players played for extra time but we lost in the last minute to a good goal. They were better in the first half but we conceded an own goal and lost in the last minute. We are sad but congratulations to the winners.” Malcolm X said: “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change”. Many Nigerians are angry with Rohr. It is time for a change of coach.