The Super Eagles of Nigeria take on Cameroon in the Round of 16 at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations. There will be a familiar feel to this fixture as both nations have seven previous AFCON meetings between them, including three finals which were all won by the Indomitable Lions.
Thankfully for Jose Peseiro’s side, this is only a sequel to their Last 16 encounter at the 2019 edition which Nigeria won thanks to Odion Ighalo’s brace and Alex Iwobi’s stunning winner in Alexandria.
The Super Eagles are having a slow start to AFCON 2023 after coming in with low expectations amidst doubts over the defensive balance. A 1-1 draw was secured in the opening game against Equatorial Guinea despite missing several chances to secure maximum points.
Nigeria finally got their campaign up and running with a much-needed win on Matchday 2 that put them joint top of Group A. It was a huge step towards qualification to the knockout stages as William Troost-Ekong’s faultless penalty earned a 1-0 win over tournament hosts, Ivory Coast.
What was one of the most high-profile games of the tournament so far was not lacking in action as a sea of Ivorian fans clad in orange filled the stands of the Stade Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpé. There were early chances for both sides but it soon settled into a cagey affair as Jose Peseiro’s switch to a back-three gave Nigeria a defensive balance which they had lacked in recent months.
While the Ivorians were keen to impress the home crowd, their opponents were comfortable with containing them and finding spaces to attack on the counter. The absence of a natural defensive midfielder in Wilfred Ndidi or his replacement, Alhassan Yusuf, was potentially detrimental but the use of three central defenders with wing-backs ensured the Super Eagles always had enough bodies behind the ball.
Although the Elephants pushed hard for an equaliser, they struggled to create anything tangible against a solid defence. The result then helped Nigeria to a comfortable second spot in the group behind Equatorial Guinea on goal difference.
While Ivory Coast became the first host nation to lose an AFCON group game in 18 fixtures going back to 2012, their first-ever defeat against Nigeria on home soil was followed by a close shave with elimination following a 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea on Matchday 3.
Elsewhere, the Super Eagles stuck to their winning formula but could only defeat group minnows Guinea-Bissau thanks to an own goal by Opa Sanganté. The Super Eagles march on to face Cameroon at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium on Saturday night which should be a spectacular occasion for all involved.
Nigeria versus Cameroon is a mouthwatering repeat of the 2000 final when Rigobert Song captained the Indomitable Lions to a win on penalties in Lagos. The big selection talking point ahead of this game was the dropping of André Onana for his cousin, Fabrice Ondoa, for the match against Equatorial Guinea and Song has a big decision to make in the Round of 16.
Cameroon will be boosted by the availability of influential captain Vincent Aboubakar and Clinton N’jie for this must-win match. Having failed to win their first two matches, they will be desperate to build some momentum following the late victory over Gambia.
A knockout game against their rivals is a perfect test of their resolve as the Super Eagles would be posing a big threat themselves.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s much-fancied attacking depth has so far failed to spark as they netted once in each group-stage match while having to depend on a penalty and an own goal to secure seven points from three games.
The new-found defensive resilience is thanks to the introduction of goalkeeper Stanley Nwabili as well as Peseiro’s bold tactical switch. Now, the Super Eagles must find a consistent creative source for Victor Osimhen who has nonetheless missed the most big chances at the tournament.
The current African Player of the Year must put away the vital chances that would come his way during the knockouts in order to prove some growing doubts wrong. Indeed, the rest of the team must also be clinical and stay switched on during this most dramatic of tournaments.
Questions have been raised over the emphasis on defending but Peseiro is bullish in his choices as he declared:
“My responsibility is to choose the best way to win this competition,”
“I chose another strategy, and the players believe in it — don’t concede goals because we will score at least one”. The Portuguese told reporters.
It is also notable that AFCON 2021 champions, Senegal, scored only one goal in their first three games before going on to lift the trophy in Cameroon. It is important to be cautious at this tournament while having a clinical edge up front, whether Nigeria can strike a balance in the knockout games is yet to be seen.
When two underperforming teams clash, it almost always brings out their best side when faced with a sink-or-swim scenario.