Madagascar outwit limp Nigeria as changes come back to bite Rohr
Africa Cup of Nations debutantes Madagascar put up a disciplined but fighting performance to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's history as they topped Nigeria 2-0 in their final group game on Sunday in Alexandria.
Lalaina Nomenjanahary pounced on a mixup in the Nigeria defence to round goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa after just 12 minutes. Charles Andriamatsinoro supplied the coup de grace early in the second half. His superb free kick taking a deflection off the Nigeria wall and beating a stranded Ezenwa.
The Nigerians struggled but failed to get a foothold in the game from thereon out, despite a rash of substitutions. Here's how it happened:
Changes come back to bite Rohr
After Nigeria qualified for the round of 16 with their second win, changes were to be expected from Gernot Rohr. And the German duly did so, making five changes to the team that started against Guinea, just like he did the last time out. But second time was not to be lucky. They weren't risky changes by any stretch: Victor Osimhen in for Odion Ighalo would perhaps have been a more adventurous proposition, but Rohr stayed largely conservative.
Even that failed to prevent disaster. The central defensive partnership of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong, long regarded as the most reliable with its "Oyinbo Wall" tag, looked anything but. Their uncertainty led to the opening goal. Troost-Ekong passed to Balogun, who in turn passed short to Ezenwa, allowing Lalaina to pounce and round Ezenwa.
The goalkeeper himself was then partially guilty for the second goal. His inability to reach a free kick saw the ball sail over him and in. Admittedly, it took a deflection, but there will be questions as to whether the taller Daniel Akpeyi and Francis Uzoho would have reached that ball.
How Super Eagles respond to going behind
There had been some informal discussions among the media about what Nigeria's response to going behind at this tournament would be. On the evidence of this game, it looked like the word for that would be "limp." And it was all largely due to a lack of energy and pace in the middle. Captain John Mikel Obi was slow and not offering enough to counter the Madagascan press. At the same time, when the Super Eagles broke, he was not quick enough to keep pace.
On one occasion towards the end of the half, Oghenekaro Etebo had the ball under intense pressure on the sideline. Mikel offered an easy passing outlet to his side, but Etebo took an extra touch instead and decided to go for a pass all the way to Balogun in central defence.
It was not that as soon as Nigeria went a goal behind in the second half, the captain was taken off and Alex Iwobi brought in. The Super Eagles showed slightly more intensity from then on. But they failed to recover and ultimately failed to break down a resolute Madagascan defence.
Other teams will now take note and whoever their opponent is in the round of 16, their tactics will include pressing for an early goal. The Nigerians have failed this test,and others will be waiting to ask this question until they can answer it convincingly. Or go home.
Ogu fails to take his chance
One player who has enjoyed the support of Nigerians despite not getting game time, or should we say because of his lack of minutes, has been John Ogu. The midfielder has been a consistent squad member under Rohr, and the last time he started a game, he scored in the World Cup qualifier against Algeria. That result was eventually overturned, but Ogu demonstrated his utility as a squad player.
Against Madagascar, the midfielder started slowly, then got lost in the high press of the underdogs. By the time the half came to a close, he was practically playing invisible man. This was definitely not one of his better days, and if he is to have any further part to play in this tournament, he will have to play his skin out during training and hope for a suspension.
Lack of goals remains an issue
Once again the Super Eagles failed to create opportunities. Madagascar had two to Nigeria's none. The Super Eagles outshot Madagascar 12-7 but only one of those was on target. It is a desperate sign of how blunt the Nigeria forward line is despite the abundance of attacking talent.
Rohr started in Alexandria with Ighalo, Ahmed Musa and Samuel Kalu up front. But his decision to play Mikel behind them robbed the team of much-needed energy, and with Ighalo very tightly attended to, there were little openings for the Nigerians to exploit.
Nigerian teams have always thrived on scoring goals. This team did exactly that during the qualifiers, putting seven last Libya, six past Seychelles and only failing to score more than once against South Africa. The German tactician will have to find a way to recapture those goals starting from the round of 16.
Set pieces need work
Talking about goals, set pieces provide a key path to those, as Madagascar showed. Converting the few they had all game. The Super Eagles, on the other hand, looked like they had not practiced them at all.
Whether it was a case of the general lackadaisical malaise that afflicted the team all game long, or just a plain inability to be creative with their set piece taking, they lost multiple opportunities to at least make the goalkeeper work. Corner kicks continuously failed to clear the first man and free kicks were either hit into the wall or just plain over the top.
For a team with hopes of reaching at least the semifinals, the Super Eagles will need to do a lot of work.
Overall however, the result was a speed bump for the Super Eagles, who were riding a wave of confidence following their two opening wins. It is a reality check for Rohr and his charges. They failed to pass the test of responding to gong behind. The key question now is whether they can pass the test of facing a setback like this.