Eguavoen-tutored Super Eagles produced an exhilarating, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable brand of football today in their slim but sumptuous 1:0 victory against Powerhouse Egypt in a match truncated several times by bizarrely punctured footballs in the 1st half.
Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho put the Super Eagles on the front foot with a ferocious stab in 30 minutes after excellent work from Moses Simon down the flank and my Man of the Man Joe Aribo from midfield.
That lead proved unassailable as the Super Eagles dominated play, dictated the rhythm and contained the Egyptians for majority of the encounter.
It was a vibrant and uplifting display by the Super Eagles. Fans were kept engaged throughout; the swagger, energy, bravery, positivity, flair and outlook that had in years gone by been a staple of the Super Eagles franchise was resurrected in the space of 95 minutes against Egypt.
I now examine below how the players rated in an encounter sure to take its place in the community of memorable Super Eagles Afcon group matches.
1. Maduka Okoye (6.5/10) had to be alive in the second half to prevent a tricky goal bound effort from Salah. His cunningly outstretched left leg was all it took to prevent the Liverpool man, who had expertly beaten an offside trap, from levelling the scores for his side deep inside the 18 yard box with a deceptive low drive. The importance of that save could not be over-stated as it displayed an impressive side of Okoye’s keeping repertoire. Okoye made several saves in this encounter but 90% of them were routine. His distribution left a bit to be desired at times.
He also looked a bit on edge and seemed to dread what might come his way. He also seemed to be indecisive on occasions as to whether to come out or not; his starting positions remain suspect. The communication with his defenders still needs to be worked on as well as his clearances as one of them in this match didn’t seem all that convincing.
In all, Okoye had a decent display. He is expected to face sterner tests in subsequent games where his goalkeeping credentials will be called into question more than today.
2. Ola Aina (8.5/10), facing a challenge to his position from Ebuehi, put up an energetic and fascinating performance today. Offensively and defensively, the Torino man was astute. He made an amazing run from just outside his own 18 yard box to the opposite 18 yard box before he could be stopped. Still, Iheanacho had the chance to benefit from that run to put Nigeria 2 goals ahead but his first touch let him down. Aina executed some crunching yet effective tackles and his long balls held promise.
In what was a recurring theme of several Super Eagles players in this match, Aina accomplished several headed clearances with aplomb. He ghosted into the 18 yard box unseen in the second half only to see his attempted cross deflect for a goal kick.
For a defender, Aina kept the Egyptians on their toes offensively as they had to pay attention to the threat he posed. He delivered a great cross to Taiwo Awoniyi in an offensive plot and in another defensive plot he foiled Salah’s effort with a great tackle. These displays generated a facial flush of fascination as they provided rich points of highlights to revisit the match and watch.
On this showing, it will be difficult to see Ebuehi wrestle the starting shirt off Aina: he was cleanly and unreservedly brilliant today!
3. Sanusi Zaidu (7/10) was very focused and business-like in his approach today. A flamboyant display was expected from the Porto man but that wasn’t forthcoming. What he did, however, he did well for most parts. Earlier on in the first half, Sanusi was caught out of position and this could have been costly for Nigeria. Moses Simon came to his aid a few times with some last ditch interceptions in the 18 yard box.
Having said that, Sanusi’s throw-ins had the potential to cause mayhem. He made himself available as an offensive outlet on a number of occasions but his crosses (particularly in one instance) could have been a whole lot better. His communication with Simon was good as well as his movements which were purpose-driven. He stayed focused for the most parts and was very comfortable performing both offensive and defensive facets of his game.
On this showing, I am afraid to say Sanusi has left a scope for others to eye his position. This Super Eagles outfit is very competitive so players have to be boiling hot for their starting position not to be in threat. Sanusi was hot, but I wouldn’t describe his performance as piping hot (particularly when it comes to crosses and deliveries). What is noteworthy is that he played a huge part in shackling Mo Salah. Perhaps this meant he couldn’t take many risks today.
4. William Troost-Ekong (8/10) was totally unrecognizable from the low-in-confidence error-prone defender that we have witnessed of late. His passes from the back were beautiful to watch: these were simple, effective and expertly dispatched as were majority of his long balls that found their mark. As already mentioned as a theme in this match, Ekong also executed some beautiful headed clearances that traversed the ball away from danger. He was also positionally astute. On one occasion, after Moses Simon was beaten hook, line and sinker at the edge of the 18 yard box, Ekong stood his grounds to make a crucial clearance; those were the made-for-nostalgia moments that we Super Eagles fans yearn for.
Ekong was thoroughly dialled in today. He was aware of his surrounding, focused, assured and played like a true leader. He commanded his area with urbanity and played like an English Premier League defender. His interaction with Omeruo was seamless as they both look set to continue from where they left off from the last Afcon if Omeruo stays fit.
5. Kenneth Omeruo (7/10), who almost scored one of his trademark headers from a corner kick, rolled back the years today to suggest that perhaps he still has one major tournament left in him after all. The Leganes man grasped the nettle to take the fight to the Egyptians on several occasions. In fact, he had a hand in Iheanacho’s goal as his purposeful run and pass from the back contributed to the sequence of events that delivered the ball to Iheanacho.
He too was involved in some of those beautiful headed clearances that were a defensive staple of this match. There was one deft-defying sliding tackle that he executed further up the pitch in the first half that threw me to the edge of my seat: it was great stuff, what you pay to see as a Super Eagles fan and Omeruo did not leave me short-changed.
Omeruo read the game intelligently as he was well positioned to snuff out considerable danger on occasions. It was a shame to see him go off injured. His wealth of experience, cool head and willingness to get ‘stuck in’ should serve Nigeria well in games to come.
6. Wilfred Ndidi (7.5/10) was also on hand late in the match to accomplish his own headed clearance that helped the Super Eagles retain the slim lead. It is easy to think Ndidi was not in this match but the simplicity and ease to which he carried out his defensive midfield duties can only be admired and applauded by those who watched the match from a technical standpoint.
Eguavoen’s strategy today was to starve Mo Salah of service. Crucial to that was the Defensive Midfield thwarting the Egyptians attacking initiatives before the ball gets to Salah. Step in Ndidi who displayed master class in defensive midfield ethos. His interceptions, tackles and follow passes held things together deep in midfield and afforded Aribo the space and freedom to foray forward at will.
Ndidi had a lame effort on goal but found his colleagues time and again with simple passes that ensured that the Super Eagles dictated the tempo of the game and helped Nigeria to be on the front foot.
Ndidi is truly one of a kind in tackles and interception interspersed with simple but accurate passes.
7. Joe Aribo (9/10 – my Man of the Match) finally reprised his seminal classics against Ukraine and Brazil in a performance that proved beyond reasonable doubt that the Rangers man is a top quality effervescent centre midfielder. Aribo was a joy to watch. The whole pitch was his stage as he waltzed across it with poise, elegance and grace.
It was almost like watching him ice skating elegantly on grass! Aribo made light work of an Egyptian defender before sliding a glorious through ball to Moses Simon in the first half just outside the 18 yard box.
He did more than his fair share of high press which put the Egyptians under intolerable pressure. Aribo was positive with his runs and purposeful with his passes. He popped up everywhere on the pitch to do the job normally done by Iwobi, but this time with a bit more class. One of his runs made him profit from an attempted Egyptian headed clearance off a Moses Simon cross before finding Iheanacho who made no mistake for Nigeria’s goal.
On this showing, it is hard to see anyone dislodge Aribo from the Super Eagles starting line up: he was plainly and exceptionally magical today. I really can’t speak too highly of his performance. The midfield play that we fans yearned for so long was calmly conceived and expertly executed throughout by Aribo today.
8. Kelechi Iheanacho (7.5/10) took his chance teeth and claws today with the sort of ruthlessness associated with a striker that had once been coached by the legendary Pep Guardiola. Latching on to an assist from Aribo in 30 minutes, Iheanacho stomached the ball before unleashing a belter that was indescribable in its ferocity from the edge of the 18 yard box to send Super Eagles fans everywhere into a frenzy as the ball smashed into the back of the net.
Before that, he would try to browbeat his way into the heart of the Egyptian defence only to end up taking on one man too many. Iheanacho became very selfish later on, electing to shoot from impossible angles when his colleagues were better placed elsewhere.
His heavy touch, after Aina’s incredible run across the pitch, led to a glorious opportunity wasted to add gloss to the score-line. I think he tired early in the second half as his impact waned and his movements diminished. His choices were poor at times.
However, his communication with his former Under-17 partner in crime Awoniyi was amazing. They located each other severally with passes that held much promise. In fact, a through ball to Awoniyi almost resulted in a goal at some point.
On this showing, despite his goal, Iheanacho has left room for others to eye his starting 11 slot. He will need to maintain and sustain his concentration level and be more altruistic with the ball to be classed by me as a starting-11 Untouchable.
9. Samuel Chukwueze (6/10) was rather muted in this encounter. Over-reliance on his left leg left him rather predictable. The offensive intensity that usually defines his game was conspicuously missing today. He did his best to help the team maintain its shape and was also ready to funnel back to perform defensive duties.
I seem to remember one of his corner kicks proving slightly problematic for the Egyptian defence and also a low cross (with his left foot) that he executed to try to locate Iheanacho. Perhaps his mother should concentrate more of her prayers on divine intervention for his right foot based on a video circulated on social media recently.
All in all, this would go down as a forgettable performance for Chukwueze. He was unable to either stamp his authority on the match or generate any meaningful wow moments. And his performance was totally eclipsed by Moses Simon on the other side. His take-ons failed to take-off and he seemed incapable of bringing a rabbit out of his boot.
But, as part of a cohesive unit, Chukwueze was not drawn out of position. He made his presence felt by going for the ball but it was what he did with it that ended up being unimaginative for most parts.
Chukwueze’s starting-11 position is definitely up for grabs based on this performance.
10. Moses Simon (8.5/10) was narrowly beaten to my Man of Match awarded by Aribo who played like a midfielder possessed. Very much criticised under Rohr (in fact many fans were surprised to see him in the starting line up today), this was a tale of a winger reborn. Simon was an absolute joy to behold today. His take-ons were excellent even though the subsequent crosses could have been better. Even at that, one of those crosses led to the attempted headed clearance that fell kindly to Aribo who squared it to Iheanacho to make it 1:0.
Simon peppered the Egyptian backline time and again. He was the proverbial thorn in their buttocks. One instance where he executed a flick exchange with Iheanacho was a made-for-reminiscence moment. Simon lifted the crowd today. He brought the fans to the edge of their seats.
His performance paid homage to evergreen wing displays of the likes of Tijani Babangida and John Utaka with his purposeful runs to the by-line and the way he ruffled the feathers of the Egyptians. One of those runs and crosses almost led to another Nigeria goal.
He also tracked back severally to perform his fair share of defensive duties, something that makes him the most valuable and complete winger available to the Super Eagles at this time. For all the encomiums that will come his way for his performance today, Simon still executed some wayward crossed and also displayed poor judgement by electing to shoot rather than pass on occasions.
All in all it was still an upbeat performance from the Nantes man. His offensive and defensive attributes will make it difficult for him to be benched in future matches.
11) Taiwo Awoniyi (7/10) was excellent with high press. The Afcon debutant rode roughshod over the Egyptian defenders at times as they struggled to contain him. Another of those presses led to set-pieces to be awarded for Nigeria.
After a 1 – 2 marriage passing manoeuvre with Iheanacho in one instance, Awoniyi unleashed a shot that the goalkeeper had to put asunder. His interaction with Iheanacho was promising as they kept the Egyptian defence busy with their movements and interplay of passes. In fact, it was while the Egyptian defender was trying to prevent Awoniyi from heading the ball that it fell kindly to Aribo to assist Iheanacho’s goal.
After he was subbed off, a lot of that pressing was lost. Awoniyi’s potential pace was always going to cause the Egyptians problems if given the chance.
All in all, Awoniyi’s has done his starting 11 credentials no harm. On this showing, he has the potential to grow into the tournament if the coaches do the needful and persist with him.
Substitute Players and Coach Ratings:
1.Sadiq Umar (6.5/10) tried to outrun the Egyptian defender but lacked the pace to pull it off. His neat flick found Iheanacho on one occasion while his hold up play found Ejuka in another instance. He must have read and absorbed his defensive brief as he supported the backline expertly at a time the Egyptians were in ascendancy.
Umar tried to plug into the pace of the game but struggled with this initially. He was somewhat unable to reproduce the sort of attacking-press that Awoniyi executed expertly. Offensively, Umar didn’t do anything exceptional and there is nothing to suggest to me that he will usurp Awoniyi to the starting 11 slot in the next match.
2. Kelechi Nwakali (6.7/10) slotted well into the shape of the Super Eagles off the ball when he was introduced. He tried hard to see more of the ball but he was introduced at a time when the Super Eagles had to batten down the hatches to repel slightly sustained waves of Egyptian attacks.
So, he best contribution came off a counter attacking manoeuvre when his visionary through ball freed up Ejuke who launched into the Egyptian 18 yard box before his effort was smothered by the goalkeeper. On Aribo’s monumental showing today, it is difficult to see Nwakali making his place to the Super Eagles starting 11 today.
Nwakali comes across as a midfielder who would need some time to grow into a match; a luxury that he doesn’t have with this current hungry Super Eagles Squad.
3. Semi Ajayi (5.5/10) was introduced to ensure Nigeria does not concede a goal in the dying minutes after Omeruo’s injury-induced exit. He slotted in well and stayed focus so that the team’s shape will not be distorted.
He didn’t put a foot wrong.
4. Chidera Ejuke (6.5/10) appear to overestimate his speed and its usefulness. Rather than be patient to gauge his options and then pick the most viable opportunity, he just elected to run and run. On one such occasion, he was actually beaten for pace an Egyptian defender. On another occasion, after a through-ball for Nwakali, he ran and elected to shoot (which was parried near-post by the goalkeeper) rather than pick out Iwobi who was better placed in the heart of the midfield with his (Iwobi’s) markers already pre-occupied.
Having said that, there were times when he was calm in possession. However, his eagerness to run and score jeopardised his own good works.
4. Alex Iwobi (5.5/10) took up promising positions from the few minutes he spent on the pitch. He is capable of so much more if afforded more minutes.
Augustine Eguavoen (9/10) was spot on with his formation and players selection today. His approach to have the Super Eagles gang up on Mo Salah particularly towards the end of the game paid dividends as it neutralised the threat of the Egyptian superstar. His Super Eagles were on the front foot and were able to string meaningful passes together.
In his highly respected YouTube video, Eguavoen talked about “attacking as a unit and defending equally as a unit”. We saw these on display today in the way the likes of Simon, Aina, Aribo, Sanusi and Sadiq Umar carried out their duties with military-style precision. His Super Eagles looked comfortable with and without the ball.
Also, as he postulated in his YouTube video, wing play – a delicious and historical staple of Nigeria’s football and identity – was in full display and actually contributed to the solo winning goal. The Super Eagles were proactive and not reactive like under his predecessor. They were often on the ascendancy as they seemed to show little respect for Egypt.
The brand of football was vibrant, vivifying, gratifying and very memorable. I see myself downloading this match and watching it on the aeroplane rather than the in-flight entertainment. I am thoroughly satisfied with it.
You either pay or sacrifice your time to watch an expansive, entertaining and enthralling Super Eagles outfit and this, Eguavoen delivered today. Indeed, the Super Eagles that we know and love is back!
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