We Nigeria fans are still pinching ourselves wondering if this is all a dream as the Super Eagles banished the spirit of poor pre-tournament preparations into the bin to breeze into the knockout phase of the Afcon in style following a neat 2:0 victory against Guinea Bissau tonight.
Eguavoen thus goes down in Nigerian Afcon folklore as the only coach - indigenous or foreign - to ever navigate the Super Eagles through the group stages in two Afcon tournaments undefeated. And Nigeria left it until the second half to truly come alive to achieve this feat against Guinea Bissau.
Sadiq Umar was well positioned to poke home Iheanacho's eloquent low cross in 56 minutes to put Nigeria 1 ahead. Ekong left no stone unturned to finish from close range and make it 2:0 to Nigeria after the ball fell kindly to him from the crossbar following Moses Simon's excellent shenanigans and ferocious shot.
Nigeria thus wait to see the best 3rd place finisher from Groups BEF.
I now appraise the players for this game against Guinea Bissau below:
1.Francis Uzoho (6/10) carried out his duties in a decent manner but was almost found wanting on one occasion. His goalkeeping technique was questionable when he parried the ball back to a dangerous area (rather than to his side) in the second half. His blushes were spared by Ajayi's timely clearance on that occasion.
His distributions were decent and he made a number of routine saves. His starting position was also commendable in the first half as he rescued a dangerous situation after Ajayi had been beaten for pace. Sadly, he didn't make enough of a case for himself to be re-installed as number one as his performance today on the whole just borders on average.
2.Tyrone Ebuehi (6/10) performed both the offensive and defensive aspects of his game in a moderate manner. His first touches were a tad heavy at times and despite getting into promising positions, his all round deliveries weren't always convincing. The gloss has surely departed his game.
Having said that, he shielded the ball well on occasions and executed telling clearances. He stayed focused to deny scoring opportunities with stout defending. Ebuehi tried to take-on opponents at times with little success. Some of his passes (like one to Iwobi) failed to find their mark. One of his throw-ins led to Nigeria ceding possession needlessly. His performance today will not be giving Ola Aina sleepless nights.
3.William Troost-Ekong (8.5) shone like a million stars today in aspects of his game that were buttered with his beautifully positioned goal. He enhanced the pace of the game with his spruce short and long range passes that either hit the mark or caused issues for the opposition. Ekong dispatched his defensive duties with maturity and command. His communication with those around him was effective. He was positionally astute both offensively to score his close range goal and defensively to keep the Guinea Bissau players out.
It is hard to believe that just weeks ago, stakeholders were suggesting that Ekong be benched for the early stages of this tournament due to low confidence. His confidence will surely be high after marshaling Nigeria's defence to 9 points in this Afcon group stage.
4.Semi Ajayi (6.5/10) dispatched his role admirably across several levels. His passes were often purposeful and positive as he tried time and again to locate attackers with them. He would also travel with the ball from the back all the way into enemy territory to take the fight to them.
There was a nervy moment when he allowed a Guinea Bissau striker sprint past him only for Uzoho to be well positioned in dousing the opposition attacking flames. However, Ajayi himself would rescue Uzoho with a delicate clearance following a questionable parry by the Cyprus based net minder. Ajayi's aerial and low clearances were masterful and his headed goal attempt following Nwakali's set piece delivery was eye-catching. In all, a busy and productive day in the office for the Wes Brom man.
5.Jamilu Collins (6.5/10) implemented his role with focus, dedication and energy today. He was very busy on the left with his offensive forays and defensive activities. His throw-ins held hope and crosses had potential. He executed an outstretched leg diversion that averted danger had the ball evaded him and reach a Guinea Bissau attacker.
Collins ran himself ragged to ensure his side wasn't breached. He supported his colleagues to snuff out danger on several occasions with his shielding and interceptions. His attention-to-position meant no undue gaps were created in his department. He executed a number of blockages that foiled the plans of the opposition.
Having said all that, his chemistry with Ejuke wasn't seamless and his deliveries weren't entirely deft. In all, Collins did nothing extraordinary but what he did, he did well enough.
6. Wilfred Ndidi (7/10) executed his defensive midfield role to his usual high standards with his retrievals, movements, tackles and interceptions. One such occasion was a brilliantly implemented tackle and follow up pass to Umar that caused panic for the opposition. Ndidi would help Nigeria recycle possession several times in this encounter after rubbing the opposition of the ball and then redistributing it to his colleagues.
In fact, Ndidi played a huge role in Nigeria's curtain raiser goal as his delicious driven pass located Iheanacho who found Umar. Ndidi's blockages were also crucial on several occasions. Ndidi’s presence in midfield can't be overemphasised. He covered a lot of grounds and did the dirty work cleanly. He did have a lame effort at goal blocked but that wouldn't bother him.
7. Kelechi Nwakali (6.8/10) was pretty impressive in the dispensation of several aspects of his role today. His long balls from deep were purposeful and would need more matches to really become potent. His deliveries from set-pieces were exceptional as they caused no shortage of problems for the opposition: Ajayi almost scored from one, Iheanacho almost scored from another and his corner kicks had to be defended robustly by Guinea Bissau.
Nwakali glided past a body of players before laying a delicious through pass to Umar who rounded the Keeper but was later dispossessed before he could pull the trigger. Nwakali also performed his fair share of defensive duties by clearing off a corner.
In all, the former Huesca man can only get better from here if he puts in the effort. His movements and positioning were also decent as well as his team-work. A decent all round display today from the Huesca man.
8. Kelechi Iheanacho (7/10) unleashed his killer instincts sporadically in this match but he was effective all the same for the most parts. He used his body very well to retain possession and drive into promising areas. He would go missing for periods in the match only to come alive to attempt to bring harm to the opposition. An impossible looping ball from inside his (Iheanacho) own half almost embarrassed the badly placed Guinea Bissau goalkeeper who scrambled to tip the ball over the bar.
Iheanacho - with his runs and positionings - provided an outlet for his team to exploit. One such occasion led to Nigeria's first goal with his beautiful run into the 18 yard box and pristine outside-foot pass that left Umar with the simplest of tap-ins. He also almost scored with a low drive from Nwakali's corner kick and he tracked back severally to perform his share of defensive duties.
9. Alex Iwobi (7/10) excelled in holding it together for the team with his continuous movements down the right flanked laced with clean interceptions and purpose driven passes. He tried to orchestrate a lot of goals scoring initiatives, one of which eventually led to Umar's goal: Iwobi's pass to Ndidi set off the move that culminated in the goal. His 1:2 maneuvers with Moses Simon were eye-catching. His delightful through ball to Onyekuru later on was also commendable though the winger missed the ball by millimetres.
Iwobi was solid offensively and defensively. That said, he did not produce magical moments other than doing the basics very well. He was expected to conjure the sort of jaw dropping moves that we saw from Simon but this wasn't forthcoming. But, he was emphatic and impressive in the overall dispensation of his duties.
10. Ejuke Chidera (6/10) seemed somewhat subdued in his performance today. For one who was expected to lift the atmosphere with his silky skills and ritzy dribbles, he was just 'okay'. Ejuke cut inside earlier on to get into a promising position just outside the 18 yard box only to shoot aimlessly, with others in better placed. He was about to sprint past a defender in the first half only to check his run with nothing meaningful eventually coming out of that situation. There was a time he helped out the defence with a timely sliding tackle from a corner kick. In fact, his team-work was admirable as his movements ensured the team shape wasn't skewed. He positioned himself to help Nigeria dictate the tempo.
But, Ejuke failed to announce himself today. As one of the team magicians, very few of his tricks came off today. Fans didn't complain when he was replaced.
11. Sadiq Umar (6.5/10) emitted a desire to get stuck in the thick of things up front but struggled to express himself as he would have liked. Happily, he was well positioned to divert Iheanacho's eloquent low cross into the back of the net for Nigeria's first goal. Umar's hold up play was respectable but the Guinea Bissau defenders were often all over him like a rash as he struggled to shrug them off. Before his goal, he almost had an assist with a delightful headed cross that narrowly missed Ajayi in the first half. He also rounded the goalkeeper expertly after a pristine pass from Nwakali only to be eventually crowded out by the defenders as he tried to sort out his feet.
Nothing came out of an ambitious long range shot as he was replaced immediately after scoring. Inability to deal with the close markings from the Guinea Bissau defenders was his bane today. His goal should cheer him up.
Substitutions and Coach Ratings
1.Moses Simon (8.5/10) produced a resplendent and affluent display today to that reinforced his position as a major star and international talking point of this tournament to date. His amazing 1:2 with Iwobi cut open the Guinea Bissau defence before Iwobi's resultant shot was blocked. After that his cut manoeuvre took one defender effectively out of the picture, he effortlessly floated past two others inside the 18 yard box before unleashing a shot that crashed from the crossbar onto the waiting foot of Ekong who did the business for Nigeria's 1st goal. Moses replicated a similar move shortly afterwards, this time even coming closer to score.
He was a constant thorn in the flesh of the Guinea Bissau defenders who struggled badly to curb his excesses. Simon was a breath of fresh air for the Super Eagles when he came on. He lifted the game and provided class and moments of pure magic. You pay or sacrifice your time to be thrilled by the Super Eagles and Moses provided this today in abundance.
2. Peter Olayinka (5/10) was very lucky that the Guinea Bissau defenders didn't accord him the sort of close-marking that they punished and neutralised Sadiq Umar with. Olayinka was anonymous for most parts. He didn't get into promising positions and he provided precious few outlets for the Super Eagles.
Later on, he did find Simon with a decent pass that could have caused all manner of problems. His movements off the ball was decent and he tried to keep his markers busy.
3. Henry Onyekuru (5.5/10) brought intensity into his game for the few minutes he spent on the pitch. He tried to get into promising spots and seemed eager to make an impact. He was just inches away from latching on to an Iwobi through ball deep inside the opposition's 18 yard box. He also managed to deliver a near-dangerous cross that was well defended.
Onyekuru deserves more minutes in this tournament.
4. Olisa Ndah (6/10) slotted well in right back and brought mild excitement in the dispensation of his role. He came to Ekong's rescue on one occasion after the Watford man mistake left a striker bearing down on Nigeria's goal. Ndah was alive to recover the situation with a neat interceptions. There was also a time he sold a dummy to the opposition before driving the ball upwards.
He played that role as to the manner born. He seemed assured, confident and unfazed about the stage.
5. Frank Onyeka (5.5/10) tends to do his best job off the ball and today was no exception. That said, he implemented some tackles and recorded a shot on goal.
Augustine Eguavoen (8.5/10) earns high mark for the ultimate outcome of the game but worry signs remain. He has been unable to get the best out of Ejuke thus far in this tournament. Alex Iwobi and Sadiq Umar both didn't really fire on all cylinders in this game partly due to how they are positioned on the pitch. It seems like they can't translate fully Eguavoen's philosophy - something the coach has to bear the blame for.
The Super Eagles weren't exciting in the first half. Their main striker (Umar) was easily crowded out while the much expected crosses from the wings failed to materialise. Nigeria struggled to stamp their authority in the first half. The rhythm wasn't working and the blending took time to build up. The tone was low and the pacing was laboured.
But the Super Eagles found their identity in the second half with the game fully coming alive after Moses Simon was introduced. Nigeria needs more than one player to lift the mood and make a difference. Eguavoen needs to raise 2 to 3 more Moses Simons. As usual, he got his substitutions spot on.
All in all, the Super Eagles were focused, tactical and compact. They were very difficult to break down and they were proactive for most parts. If Eguavoen can address the team's glaring shortcomings then he can go places with this bunch of players.
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