South Africa knocked out of the park in thrilling penalty face off.
Seeing Super Eagles fans all over the world be united once again in love of our cherished national treasure despite our many differences and difficulties is one thing that brings joy to my heart. And this is something that reaching the final of this Afcon against all odds produced.
The Super Eagles (and us fans) thought they were 2 goals up when Osimhen bundled Osayi-Samuel’s eloquent low cross into the net only for VAR to award South Africa a penalty which Mokoena converted in 90 minutes to cancel out an earlier converted-penalty by Ekong in 67 minutes. 1:1 it ended in regulation and then extra time.
The match went to penalties and we converted 4 against South Africa’s 2 with Nwabili writing his name in gold with 2 cracking saves to further raise his profile and fulfil his goalkeeping Messiah status for many Super Eagles fans.
To be honest, I thought South Africa were the better team on the night with their fluid play and incisiveness. But the Super Eagles’ never-say-die attitude which has brought us far was again the game-changer.
I now go on to my observations about the player’s performances.
1. Stanley Nwabili: to say he is now the darling of Super Eagles fans will be a huge understatement. His heroics during the match and in penalties played a huge role in the team’s success. His one-handed punch from a fine curling shot earlier on saved Nigeria’s bacon. He would attempt to locate Osihmen with a signature long ball that almost instigated an attacking move. Another powerful punch from a corner kick would keep Nigeria in the tie. He did punch a Percy Tau freekick back into a dangerous area for Nigeria which South Africa failed to punish with a wayward rebound but Nigeria fans will easily forgive and forget that (but it could have resulted in a goal which underlies Nwabili’s questionable techniques in some areas). With Nigeria’s defence totally beaten, he would run out like Usain Bolt to accost the ball in midfield and guide it to a throw-in to underlie his vision and attention-to-danger. His pièce de résistance would come in the way of 2 great penalty saves to put his opposite South African number to shade and cement his reputation as one of the elite goalkeepers in this tournament in an overall performance that grabbed my attention and left me thoroughly flabbergasted. 9/10
2. Ola Aina: although he seems less at home on the left, he still delivered a respectable performance that helped to keep South Africa at bay and attempted to create openings for Nigeria. He tried but failed severally to dribble past South Africans. I noticed one poor pass from him from midfield which was unfortunate. Despite the weak aspects of his presentations he helped create some big moments like an eloquent high cross that drew a finger-tip save before landing at Simon’s doorstep. He helped restrain Percy Tau on occasions with neat and tidy interceptions. He would help the team retain possession and pass with purpose. One lovely throw-in drew a direct save from the goalkeeper whilst another to Simon had to be defended. In fact his throw-ins were a menace to South African society. One long ball to Iheanacho; another to Osimhen were quite telling with his interceptions, clearances and recycling of possession stood him apart on a night of fabulous football. Aina’s performance drew me in and kept hooked on what he would always do next in what was an all round well-expressed and compelling output. All players in world football miss penalties but his intentions of try to go high to negate Williams’ reach was commendable but his penalty just travelled higher than he intended. 7.5/10
3. Bright Osayi-Samuel: he pitched his tent up-front in the right wing earlier but failed to produce enough quality to really trouble the South Africans. It was a strange and subdued all round performance which funnily wasn’t characterised by mistakes, missteps or miscalculations – no. What he did, he did well, very well. But he just didn’t bring enough to the party to ‘add extra value’ to that role and push for a starting slot. I loved his positioning which plays to his ability to play to Peseiro’s instructions. He headed away for a corner kick to play his defensive role well. One point, he beautifully combined with Onyeka, Lookman and Osimhen to cunningly run rings around South Africa to open them up leading to Onyeka’s low cross that held promise. He would wriggle his way into the 18 yard box before passing to Simon who then tried to crack open South African defence. Several times, he helped Nigeria retain possession when he was marked and one looping cross to Osihmen also caught my eye. He would squeeze his low cross excellently to Osihmen to bundle into an open net for the much painfully disallowed second goal. For the most part, I was happy and satisfied but not entirely uplifted by his performance (had Osimhen’s goal stood, then his overall presentation would have received a massive boost; but fans should use that as a reminder of Osayi’s potentials). It was a mixed bag of competency but inability to compellingly stamp his authority. 6.9/10
4. William Troost-Ekong: this was a night when Ekong’s shortcomings will, for the first time in the tournament, be on full display only for his strong aspects to totally override his weaknesses compellingly. Yes, Percy Tau beat him for pace on one occasion to be 1 v 1 with Nwabili only for first touch to let the South African striker down. In fact Ekong looked shaky in few 1 v 1 situations. But rough-house tactics almost resulted in a torn shirt for a South African striker after been beaten for pace to earn a yellow card. He would intelligently support the formation’s integrity in keeping South Africa offside. His goal saving headed clearances also bailed out Nigeria severally. For all his leadership applications during the match and defensive general-ship, his magnum opus were 2 fantastically taken penalties to beat the now overrated South African goalkeeper in-game and during the shootouts. Ekong lifted my mood and spirit with his calmness in penalties and elevated the respect I have for his overall presentation in this match and tournament at large. 8/10
5. Calvin Bassey: he had to alert to help keep a rampaging South African defence at bay, particularly after Nigeria’s disallowed goal had deflated the Super Eagles, leading to a barrage of assaults by the South Africans. I tried to look for occasions where Bassey was torn out of possession but he was positionally astute to curtail the opposition. His long balls to our strikers were a bit few and far between but when delivered they held promise. He had one nice cross delivered but blocked. He executed a crucial clearance leading to a corner kick. His tackles and interceptions were often on the money and seldom resulted in dangerous moments for Nigeria. His engaging no-nonsense defensive style kept me hooked as his ability to play to instructions and maintain focus that, even when it goes under the radar it still contributes to Nigeria’s winning strategy and abilities to frustrate teams in this tournament. 7.5/10
6. Semi Ajayi: he also had to be ready-to-act when South Africa cranked up the heat in the second half, late in the first half and in extra time and Ajayi rose up to be counted compellingly. I think he could have done better with a header after a Lookman free kick but it was weak. For a man without pace, he drove the ball forward severally with intent but wayward passes at times would let him down. His shielding and tackles were crucial on the night to curtail the opposition. I think I counted 2 goal saving sliding tackles implemented by Ajayi which caused me much excitement and kept us well in the game. His defending in 1 v 1 situations were also very strong as his confidence continues to grow. He was thoroughly dialled in when South Africa knocked hard at our door to avoid needless freekicks by implementing careful markings. In all, I was fully invested in his application in a night when our defenders had to be more fully focused on the task at hand. 7/5/10
7. Alex Iwobi: the vast majority of his good work in this game came when Nigeria didn’t have possession (Nigeria has just 39% possession). A lovely through pass from him almost found Osihmen. He would drive the ball forward with attacking intent but these seldom troubled the South Africans too much in dangerous places. One long ball eventually found Osihmen who tried to make something profitable. He unleashed a comfortable and saveable shot after a neat pass from Moses Simon which showed intent but ultimately failed to ruffle South African feathers. He would often attempt to nudge South African defenders from their back to steal possession and I noticed he was successful on one occasion (so South Africa held back when in possession to counter Nigeria’s thieving pick-pocket tendencies and try to see the match out to penalty kicks where they ultimately failed!). On the ball, I don’t think Iwobi imposed himself like he would have wanted. But his marauding movements off the ball meant South Africa had to go long and high to bypass our midfield apparatus. Iwobi combined well with those around him but South Africa figured him out at times and well intercepted his few passes. It was a performance that fully resonated with me in how he applied himself without the ball. 6.5/10
8. Frank Onyeka: he would do what he needs to do to ensure that Nigeria’s midfield is well fortified even if it requires employing rough-house tactics. Onyeka helped Nigeria retain possession and reuse the ball on occasions. He gets into excellent positions in and around the opposition 18 yard box only to deliver a range of crosses that often leave a bitter taste on the tongue because the quality is a bit low and they are readable to South African defence. I counted one wayward pass from him and a hopeless shot after good work from Lookman. I counted at least twice when he manhandled the opposition to avert danger at a potential cost of a booking to him (always willing to take one for the team!). His blockages, interceptions and tackles from the defensive midfield position were very admirable and continue to raise his profile. His willingness to run with the ball into opposition 18 yard box continues to be a valuable tool that yet again won Nigeria a freekick in very tantalising positions. His interaction with those around him is seamless and stable. The poor parts of his game have perversely become a charm for me which add horribly-beautiful characteristic to his overall presentation. His weaknesses convey his strengths in a manner to propel his all round presentation to cement his place firmly in Nigeria’s starting 11 at least in this tournament. 7/10
9. Ademola Lookman: South Africa aimed to clip Nigeria’s wings which made life very difficult for Lookman earlier in the game. A deceptively beautiful through pass almost found Osihmen as early as 40 seconds. His tackles and interceptions caught the eye as he was able to use these to recycle possession on occasions. He would often be crowded out by 2 to 3 South Africans who succeeded in dispossessing Lookman. His corner kicks caused problems as no less than 2 occassions had to be scrambled away by South Africa. Despite the attention paid to him, he still wriggled into the 18 yard box to deliver a neat pas to Onyeka who wasted the opportunity. Despite that successful pass, some other passes were well cut off by S. Africa. His nicely floated free kick found Ajayi who could only deliver a weak header. He continued his thieving ways by stealing the ball from S. African players at times behind their backs. A nice dangerous cross hit the goalkeeper in extra time which could have been crucial. He was unsuccessful in rounding the goalkeeper after good work from Chukwueze but he could so easily have won Nigeria another penalty. It was a supremely satisfying performance for me from Lookman who, though was often well shackled by South Africa, still found ways to trouble the South Africans with or without the ball. 7/10
10. Victor Osihmen: he was just all over the place in the attacking third – right wing, left wing, and deep centre forward – to add that layer of unpredictability to his overall presentation. Earlier, he was in his traditional centre forward positions but South Africa successfully cut out passes to him from Iwobi, Lookman and Onyeka. He attempted one wildly speculative long shot from midfield which made me laugh. A nice header from a corner kick from him sailed wide whilst another header from an Osayi-Samuel cross wasn’t well directed. He would bulldoze his way into S. African 18 yard box before being cut down to size for the penalty which Ekong coolly converted. He would convert an Osayi cross for his hat-trick of cancelled goal in the tournament. He would pop up on the wings to deliver some nice crosses which kept South Africa on their toes. A promising shot and another header headlined his extra time performance in an overall display continues to show me how versatile (and hard working) Osihmen is upfront and how wasteful and useless at times he can be with headers and how unlucky he has been all tournament with disallowed goals. 7.5/10
11. Moses Simon: what a frustrating night he had! I noticed he was unsuccessful in several dribble attempts and a number of his crosses well blocked. The South Africans successfully double-teamed him severally but he still managed to shrug them off to find Iwobi and others with some neat passes. A nice long cross from him found Aina who himself failed miserably to dribble past South Africans. His game was just littered with block crosses, passes and dribbles which firmly curtailed Nigeria’s attacking intent. But he was still a beast without the ball as he fortified the midfield with focused movements which kept South Africa at bay, forced them backward and make them resort to long balls. He would have fared much better had he been used predominantly on the left but Simon still kept South Africans busy as they needed the Calvary to keep him mute which for me raised the level of his performance to acceptable heights. 6.5/10
12. Samuel Chukwueze: what an appearance! He was way more successful with his dribble attempts partly because South African defenders were tiring but also because his methods were neater and more incisive (he is a natural born dribbler). He dribbled 2 players to find Osihmen on one occasion and dribbled through a crowd of players before being stopped on another occasion. His hold up play was good and he was also looking for that killer pass like the one delivered to Lookman who almost rounded the goalkeeper inside the 18 yard box. He had one shot on target in a performance I found richly alive, wholly exciting, thoroughly engaging and acceptably effective in execution of dribbles and passes. 7/10
13. Alhassan Yusuf: his few passes had attacking intents behind them like one that found Chukwueze who tried to make something happen. His foul for the penalty was unfortunate as he was doing his best to avert danger. It wasn’t a rash or reckless tackle, the timing was just slightly off and his body position in relation to the South African worked against him. He would work hard to shield the back line and help Nigeria see out the game after South Africa started to unleash attacks. I enjoyed his substitute performance and hold no grudge for the penalty conceded. 5.9/10
14. Joe Aribo: never one to be the adventurous type, he was content to mark and shield the midfield and just pass back or sideways so others can take the attacking initiative away from him! I found his performance underwhelming but productive in keeping South Africa at bay. 5/10
15. Kelechi Iheanacho: finally a fan favourite tasted action in a substitution that once again justified Peseiro’s decision making capabilities. He conceded a freekick and manufactured some sublime passes like the one that sliced through South Africa to find Moffi who was fouled in a dangerous area. The way he nutmegged the defender before passing was thrilling and exciting underlining the reasons fans have clamoured for him. At a time Nigeria was defending and being starved of possession, Iheanacho bucked the trend to still make his presence felt offensively and also execute a decent but tame freekick. His tour-de-force was his parting shot in the way of his well taken penalty kick that made South Africa keeper look ordinary and propel Nigeria to victory. Iheanacho maintained a sense of verisimilitude in a brief performance I thoroughly enjoyed watching and one which ended up with a cliff-hanger presentation. 7.5/10
16. Kenneth Omeruo: he slotted into defence seamlessly and took his penalty like to longstanding professional that he is without shedding a sweat. I love it! 6.7/10
17. Terem Moffi: if I want to be pedantic, I think his limited pace meant he was felled just outside the 18 yard box to earn South Africa a red card and Nigeria a free kick after good work down the right from Iheanacho. Ahmed Musa or a fresher Victor Osihmen would have eaten up more ground to be in the 18 yard box to earn a penalty instead! But his application to stay onside to start with was admirable as was his all round play which left me hungry as to what he could offer. 6/10
Jose Peseiro: what else is there to say? Not content in meeting his semi final target, Peseiro set his players up and instructed them in a manner that produced results even with this team’s back was against the wall. Nigeria fans were apprehensive going into the encounter because of the fear of penalty kicks owing to the reputation of South African goalkeeper. Again, Peseiro showed he was several steps ahead of fans by proving that his own goalkeeper held penalty proficiency hitherto unknown to wider fan base and the football world. With rumours going about bad blood with Kelechi Iheanacho, he entrusted Iheanacho with match saving responsibilities in-game and in the shootouts showing all along that he (Peseiro) knew what he was doing and how to channel inner hunger of his players to devastating effect. He gave fans the victory we needed and earned the respect he wanted in how he organises his team, selects his players and make substations. Now, come-what-may, Nigeria will not leave this tournament without medals or a podium finish, what else could we have asked for? Chop knuckle jare! 10/10
Disclaimer: I apologise for grammatical mistakes due to limited time for edit.