Nigeria exit Africa Cup of Nations due to a slow start and late inexperience
CAIRO -- Three thoughts on Nigeria's 2-1 defeat to Algeria in the Africa Cup of Nations semifinal.
1. Nigeria start slow, catch up, then succumb late
Nigeria manager Gernot Rohr opted for an unchanged lineup for the first time this tournament, naming the same 11 starters that zipped to a 2-1 win over South Africa in the quarterfinal. While the names on the team sheet might have been the same, though, the output was decidedly different.
There was none of the early energy that was seen against Bafana Bafana, and Nigeria looked well short of the game's pace as the Algerians put them on the back foot with their high press and reaction to second balls.
It did not help that a number of the Super Eagles players appeared to be having an off day. Odion Ighalo's first touch was below par, Kenneth Omeruo made errors in defence and Wilfred Ndidi uncharacteristically gave the ball away. Then there was Ahmed Musa failing to track back as Riyad Mahrez scorched Jamilu Collins for the cross that led to William Troost-Ekong's 40th-minute own goal.
The only surprise was that the opening goal took as long to come as it did, but credit must be given to Rohr's players, who fought back in the second half, pinned the Algerians back in their own half and were good value for the penalty that led to the equaliser.
Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi admitted that the pressure got to his players, who had played extra time in the previous round against Ivory Coast. But Nigeria were unable to push on and force a winner, even despite the introduction of Henry Onyekuru for his first minutes of the competition.
Instead, Mahrez bent in a superb 95th-minute free kick to seal victory for Algerians
2. Extra quality made inexperience pay
Algeria came out deserved winners, even if the reaction to the decision to award Nigeria a penalty left something to be desired.
The game's decisive moment highlighted the quality of Mahrez, as well as the inexperience of Nigeria, who conceded a free kick in a dangerous area so late in the game. Subsequently, any hope that goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi could thwart the effort was soon dashed; having set up his wall, for some inexplicable reason he opted to stand almost directly behind the barrier.
Goalkeeping was always the weakest link of this team and, going forward, Rohr will have to find a solution. The coach also must ensure his players learn from this experience.
"We are a young team," he said after the game. "Our midfield -- Ndidi, (Oghenekaro) Etebo, (Alex) Iwobi -- they are the youngest, and it is hard to lose in the last minute, but it was a difficult game and I am proud of my players. Algeria were the better team, and they deserved to win."
The legs and lungs of Ndidi and Etebo have been key, but all of that running took its toll on Sunday, as both men looked weary and as if they lacked a yard of pace on their quick-moving opponents. That split-second timing was the difference between winning tackles and losing second balls, and they were constantly behind in both areas.
Nigeria badly needed a third defensive midfielder to protect the back four, but the reinforcement never came from the bench. Fresh legs might have prevented the foul -- committed by Ndidi -- that led to the decisive free kick. Instead, fans are left to once again question Rohr's in-game moves.
3. Ighalo has nerves of steel
When the going gets tough, the tough get going -- and Ighalo has shown himself over and over again to have what it takes.
When Aissa Mandi used his hand to stop Etebo's 71st-minute shot, Gambian referee Papa Bakary Gassama needed VAR to confirm it was a penalty. When he eventually did, Nigeria needed someone with ice in his veins to step up and take the spot kick.
This might look like the simplest of tasks, but Nigerian fans have not forgotten Godwin Odiye, whose own goal extinguished the Eagles' best hope of World Cup qualification in the 1980s. Likewise, Victor Ikpeba has not lived down his failed penalty versus Cameroon in the shootout that decided the 2000 Nations Cup final, while Yakubu Ayegbeni is forever a villain for his two-yard miss against South Korea during the 2010 World Cup
So, this was a seminal moment for Ighalo, who was criticized for his World Cup displays a year ago and has had mixed reviews over the past few weeks in Egypt. Nevertheless, the forward is nothing if not resilient, and when he stepped up, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome, despite jangling Nigeria nerves around the ground.
He delivered expertly, sending Algeria goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi the wrong way, to claim his fourth goal at AFCON 2019. In the stands, his wife, Sonia, as well as his fellow countrymen and women, celebrated.
Alas, it was to prove the highlight of an ultimately disappointing day.