Nigeria’s march to a fourth Africa Cup of Nations title continues apace, as they made their way to the final on the back of a 4-2 penalty shootout win over South Africa, and again it came down to the defence.
Despite their unexpected run to the semifinals – not many believed the Super Eagles would get this far prior to the tournament – questions have remained about certain aspects of the Super Eagles game, including whether or not Peseiro (and his tactics) were right for Nigeria.
But skipper William Troost-Ekong and goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali have emerged as the heroes for the team, coming to the fore during multiple moments of pressure, and will have to hold their nerve one more time as they face hosts Ivory Coast in the final on Sunday.
Troost-Ekong for President!
By his own admission, defender Troost-Ekong nearly didn’t make the squad for this tournament, and he was this close to quitting international football.
Instead, if Nigeria do go on to win the whole shebang, it would be a toss-up between him and Victor Osimhen for tournament MVP. Even if they don’t, it would be a disservice if a Nigerian, especially one of those two, do not win it.
Troost-Ekong’s ability and his leadership have been questioned in recent years, both by fans and even coaches, which is why he was left out of the squad for a full year without so much as a whisper of protest anywhere.
But this tournament has unearthed the gem that is not just Troost-Ekong as an accomplished defender, but as a confident leader. In the quarterfinal, he told the coach to substitute the tired Onyeka, who had insisted he was not tired when asked by Peseiro a few minutes earlier.
This semifinal however, was where his true leadership skills came through. He had the gumption to take and put away a high pressure penalty kick; when the team conceded a goal to a penalty kick, he was there to rally the troops and keep them from losing their heads. And when the game eventually went to spotkicks, the defender could be seen pointing to his head and mouthing “mentality” to his stir his teammates.
Few players have led with such confidence, panache and fearlessness on the field like the former Watford man. To add to his growing legendary status, his goal against South Africa took his tally to four, equaling a 32-year-old record for a Nigeria defender held by the legendary Stephen Keshi.
Nwabali claims his throne
Nine years after the legendary Vincent Enyeama left the national team, it appears the question of who his replacement will be has finally been answered.
Admittedly, the sample size at national team level is not enough, for now, to make such a clear declaration, but the indicators show that Chippa United’s Nwabali may have either answered that question, or will be the answer for the near future.
The goalkeeper is a literal huge presence in goal, which is already intimidating for opposing forwards, and maybe even his defenders too. He brings a similar sort of calmness and assurance to the defence that Enyeama’s presence used to bring, allowing those in front of him to play with less nerves and more confidence, and he is not shy to give his defenders an earful if needed.
Even more impressive is that he does his job well. Great shot stopper, razor sharp reflexes, amazing footwork for a big man, and a fearless shot stopper.
Has Peseiro learned to roll with the punches?
All tournament through, one big criticism of Jose Peseiro has been his player management. He has used almost the same starting lineup for every game except when forced to make a change, like Alhassan Yusuf’s injury in the first game ruling him out.
Qualifying for the round of 16 allowed him the luxury of resting players, and Zaidu Sanusi’s injury led to the introduction of Bright Osayi-Samuel. Otherwise, the coach has kept faith with his core eleven and the same subs. And even when he has subbed players, they have come on at the death.
The result was that there was a lot of fatigue in the team against South Africa on Wednesday. Iwobi, for all his good work, began to look leggy, and Moses Simon was also turning the ball over a little too much by the hour mark. They were hauled off for Yusuf and Samuel Chukwueze respectively. It looked for all the world like the Portuguese had turned a new leaf.
But no, even though he made all six allowable subs (including the extra allowed for extra time) he made four after regulation time. So it would seem that while the coach is not averse to being flexible enough to take off players when they need to be, it appears he retains his old character of keeping them on until their legs threaten to give way.
But the decision paid off, as it appeared the substitutes were brought on especially for the shootout. The first two kicks were taken by Terem Moffi and Kenneth Omeruo, and the winning kick was taken by Kelechi Iheanacho. Seems like genius now.
Nigeria continues to win the ‘rivalry’
Aside from reaching the final, South Africa were extra motivated to beat Nigeria. The Super Eagles have a dominant record against Bafana, and the South Africans tried their very best to break that.
But despite how hard they fought, and how well they played, in the end it was the Nigerians who triumphed once again. This must be extremely galling for Bafana Bafana.
While the answer in the end was not so clear cut – technically the result is a draw – it must feel pretty galling for the South Africans that once again they gave it their best shot, and once again, Nigeria got the answer they wanted, that they hold the hex over South Africa.