After an embarrassing 2-0 defeat to tournament debutants Madagascar in the final group stage match, the Super Eagles needed to react against Cameroon – and they did – thanks to an Odion Ighalo masterclass. Many questioned Gernot Rohr’s decision to include the Shanghai Shenhua frontman in the starting lineup, following his subpar performance against the Barea last Sunday, but Ighalo silenced his critics emphatically – notching the Super Eagles first and second goals, before turning provider in the third for Alex Iwobi. The 30-year-old striker is fast turning the act of silencing critics into a craft, after redeeming himself in the tournament qualifiers – to finish as top scorer with seven goals, following a disappointing World Cup campaign in Russia last year. Odion Ighalo, like many other footballers, experiences off days, however, his quality as a footballer is never in doubt.
The signs of a crumbling backline were evident in the defeat to Madagascar and were further highlighted in the hard-fought win over Clarence Seedorf’s men. Coach Gernot Rohr decided to revert to Daniel Akpeyi in goal after watching Ikechukwu Ezenwa ship two goals against Nicolas Dupuis’ men. The German tactician also brought back Kenneth Omeruo to replace Leon Balogun – the culprit for Madagascar’s first goal against Nigeria. However, the changes failed to provide the desired stability as the centre back pairing of Omeruo and Troost-Ekong underwhelmed. Cameroon scored just two goals in the entirety of the group stage but recorded two in the first half against the Super Eagles. Stephane Bahoken found himself in acres of space between Kenneth Omeruo and Ola Aina to register the first for the Indomitable Lions after Chidozie Awaziem failed to close down Christian Bassogog who sent in a beautiful cross from the wide area. The second for Cameroon saw Clinton N’Jie outmuscle Ola Aina at the edge of the box to finish past an indecisive Daniel Akpeyi in goal. Both goals were assisted by abysmal defending from the Nigeria backline and improvement is needed if the Super Eagles hope to actualize their dream of clinching the Afcon title.
Samuel Chukwueze, who came on for the uninspiring Moses Simon in the 60th minute, impacted on the outcome of the match. Gernot Rohr decided to unleash the Villarreal winger with Nigeria trailing Cameroon 2-1, and the decision proved effective as the 20-year-old began to cause Clarence Seedorf’s defense all sorts of trouble. Chukwueze might not have scored or assisted any of Nigeria’s comeback goals, but it was the pace and creativity he added to the attack that inspired the result the Super Eagles achieved on the night. With that sort of dazzling performance, it will be almost impossible for Rohr to name the Umuahia-born forward among the substitutes against South Africa in the quarter-finals, as he has rightfully earned his spot among the starters.
Though, holders of the current Afcon title, Cameroon were not considered as serious contenders for the trophy heading into the competition. They struggled to earn draws against teams like Malawi and Comoros during the qualifiers and only scored their third goal against Nigeria after three matches in the Africa Cup of Nations. The Indomitable Lions did show some appreciable level of resilience against the Super Eagles in the first half when they came from behind to win that half. However, the lapses in the team began to manifest as Gernot Rohr’s men turned on the heat in the second half. Clarence Seedorf has got some talented individuals in the squad in players like Andre Onana of Ajax, Clinton N’Jie of Olympique Marseille and Stephane Bahoken of Angers, to name just a few, but the lack of quality in other areas underlines the need for the Dutch manager to intensify his scouting network as he looks to build a better Cameroon team for the future.
Prior to the game against Cameroon, Oghenekaro Etebo had registered the most recoveries in the group stage (34). The Stoke City midfielder was integral to Nigeria’s remarkable win as he continually frustrated Cameroon’s attack and aided creativity in the middle of the park with his eye-catching mobility. Gernot Rohr’s chopping and changing method in midfield hasn’t affected Etebo as remains the only Super Eagles midfielder to have started every game so far in the tournament. The former Warri Wolves man is naturally an attacking midfielder, but he has adapted so well to his current defensive role in midfield, forging a solid partnership with Wilfred Ndidi. There are only very few positions in the Nigeria squad right now that seems indispensable, and Etebo’s spot is one of those.