When the final whistle blew on November 16, 2021, at the Teslim Balogun, the atmosphere in the stadium was gloomy, although Nigeria had just secured their place in the 2022 World Cup playoffs.
The Super Eagles had just finished playing a 1-1 draw with Cape Verde to finish as one of the ten group winners in the CAF qualifying section to qualify for the final playoff round.
But despite the qualification, fans were not happy with the team’s performance on that particular day. The result did not matter, but the display did not excite the fans.
It was an utterly lazy performance with the team lacking identity while the players looked lost. It is important also to state that it was not an isolated performance, it had been like that for more than a year.
Following the game against Cape Verde, it was clear that something had to change as the team should be doing better, considering the talents in the squad.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) did make a change two weeks later by sacking Gernot Rohr as the coach and replacing him with Austin Eguavoen on an interim basis.
But while a change was needed and Rohr had to go, the decision to sack him just a month before the start of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was met with scepticism.
Likewise, many questioned the appointment of Eguavoen on an interim basis. Nonetheless, the NFF was not bothered.
A month later, the two decisions have proven to be smart as Eguavoen has shut up the critics while he has finally freed the players from the shackles of Rohr.
The former Gent defender has made the Super Eagles an entertaining side to watch again. When Rohr was appointed in 2016, Nigeria were enjoyable to watch, but in his last three years, the three-time African champions became conservative and were always on the backfoot.
However, Eguavoen changed that mentality and made the team play on the front foot. This is evident in their first two games at the AFCON against Egypt and Sudan.
The Super Eagles were dominant in the two games and rarely troubled. Eguavoen ensured he played each player to their strength, which is something fans did not see under Rohr.
Moses Simon, for example, was one of Rohr’s favourites, but the Nantes winger’s performances, especially his attacking input was always criticised.
However, Simon has been Nigeria’s best player at the 2021 AFCON, with his performances in the two games against Egypt and Sudan receiving praises.
It is a drastic change from his performances under Rohr. When asked the reason for his brilliant performances, the former Levante winger revealed he had been given more freedom by Eguavoen, which is not something he had under Rohr.
“The game (Vs Egypt) is one of my best in two years,” Moses said at the pre-match conference for the game against Sudan.
“Every coach have their mentality and impact. The previous coach, I play to his instructions. With the new coach, he gave us freedom and allowed us to bring our style of play at club side.”
Although he was one of the regulars under Rohr, Simon’s attacking qualities were never fully utilised due to the German’s tactics.
Simon had to do more defensive duties; hence his attacking output was affected. However, this has changed under Eguavoen, with Simon enjoying more freedom as a winger.
In the game against Sudan, the 26-year-old completed three take-ons, made 42 touches, created two chances, managed two shots on target, resulting in a goal, and provided one assist.
Moses Simon’s game by numbers vs. #TeamSudan
8 duels contested
7 duels won
4 take-ons attempted
3 take-ons completed
2 chances created
2 fouls won
2 shots on target
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 15, 2022
This is a performance of a player that has been given the freedom to express his attacking qualities. It is not just Simon alone that has found this new freedom under Eguavoen.
Aribo is another player who is having a great tournament at the AFCON after struggling in recent games under Rohr.
In fairness, the Rangers star did well in his first few games under Rohr, but he was largely disappointing in almost all the games he played for Nigeria last year, which is a stark contrast to his club performances.
But at the AFCON, Aribo has excelled in a double pivot pairing with Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi.
Going into AFCON, little was expected from the Super Eagles due to the change in coaching personnel and a far from ideal preparation.
The team had to deal with the withdrawals of Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis, Leon Balogun and Abdullahi Shehu.
Still, Eguavoen has managed to change fans perception about the team, and there is this belief that the Super Eagles can now go all the way and win the title.
If Rohr had been in charge, it would not have been the feeling, but Eguavoen has freed these players and made Nigeria a team to fear again.
The only problem is he will have to leave the post after the AFCON following the NFF’s decision to appoint Jose Peseiro as Rohr’s permanent replacement.
But it is a decision they could regret if/when Eguavoen wins the title in Cameroon.