A tournament that started with so much promise for Nigeria came to a crashing and disappointing end at the Roumde Adjia Stadium.
Nigeria went into the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations with little expected from the team, but their flawless performance in the group stage raised expectations.
The three-time AFCON champions were the only side to win all of their three group games, beating Egypt, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.
This raised the belief that they could go all the way and secure a fourth title. However, those hopes extinguished on Sunday night after they lost to Tunisia 1-0 in the second round.
The Carthage Eagles had only qualified as one of the four best third-placed teams, but they played a perfect tactical game to dump their opponents out of the competition, courtesy of a second-half strike from Youssef Msakni.
It was a result no one, especially Nigerians, saw coming, but that is the beauty of tournament football. The team and the fans are still reeling from the loss, but with time, the hurt will heal.
With that established, Soccernet highlights some of the talking points from Nigeria’s campaign at the 2021 AFCON.
Eguavoen fails his main test
In fairness, Austin Eguavoen took an impossible job, even though he was no stranger to the team. The 56-year-old was named as the team’s interim boss a month before the tournament after Gernot Rohr was sacked.
This made the job difficult for him as he had limited time to prepare the team. His luck was not helped either after Victor Osimhen, Leon Balogun, Emmanuel Dennis, and Abdullahi had to pull out of the squad due to injury and club issues.
However, against all odds, Super Eagles sent out a statement in their opening game against Egypt with a strong performance that resulted in a 1-0 win.
Before the tournament, under Rohr, Nigeria had been uninspiring in their games, and fans had lost interest in their games.
But the performance against Egypt surprised many and reignited the spark. The team looked more exciting and played on the front foot under Eguavoen.
They backed up the performance with comfortable victories against Sudan and Guinea-Bissau. Eguavoen deservedly received many plaudits, with many even saying he should get the job permanently.
But despite the performance, the jury was still out on his tactical prowess, and there was a feeling he would come up short when it matters most.
And it indeed happened on Sunday night as Eguavoen was tactically found out. In the group stages, Nigeria’s attacking threat came from the wings, especially from the lively Moses Simon.
Eguavoen approached the game with the same style, but he did not know that Tunisia had done their homework, and they found a way to contain Simon and Chukwueze by doubling up on them.
It meant Nigeria struggled to create chances, while they could not go through the middle due to the Tunisian’s low block.
The double-pivot midfield pairing of Wilfred Aribo and Wilfred Ndidi did not help and made them vulnerable on the break.
Tunisia went into the game hoping to get a smash and grab win, which was what exactly happened. When Msakni scored the goal, it was the first time Nigeria conceded first in the competition, putting Eguavoen’s tactical acumen to the test.
However, despite making a host of changes, Nigeria still struggled to create clear chances, although Alex Iwobi’s dismissal did not help them.
At the end of the day, it was clear that Eguavoen had been outsmarted by a better manager. He did well by making the team exciting to watch again, but he failed his first big test in the tournament, which eventually led to the team’s exit.
Maduka Okoye is still Nigeria’s best goalkeeper
Okoye was the scapegoat after the loss on Sunday. The Sparta Rotterdam goalkeeper was blamed for the goal, with many fans saying he should have kept out Msakni’s long-range strike.
After the game, critics pounced on him, saying he should lose his place as Nigeria’s number one. However, Okoye is still Nigeria’s best goalkeeper, and what happened on Sunday will not change that.
While he could have prevented the goal on Sunday, it was a difficult shot, and any goalkeeper could have been beaten by it.
It was a swerving shot, while it also took an awkward bounce, which makes it difficult for him. His players also did not make it easy for him.
Wilfried Ndidi equally deserved criticism for allowing Msakni to move past him easily, while the two centre-backs could have closed him down before he took the shot.
The truth is Okoye’s criticism is unfair, and it comes from a place of jealousy. There are many that do not like the way he has come from nowhere to take over the position in the team.
But his growth has been clear to see. He was playing in the German fourth-tier two years ago before moving to Sparta Rotterdam in the summer of 2020.
He has already signed a five-year contract with Premier League club Watford. This move shows Okoye’s growth as a goalkeeper.
He has moved from the German fourth-tier to two top leagues in Europe in the space of two years. How many goalkeepers have had this kind of success?
Chukwueze’s growth has stalled
If Okoye’s growth and quality are clear to see, the same cannot be said about Samuel Chukwueze. The Villarreal winger was one of the few Super Eagles players who failed to impress.
But in Chukwueze’s case, it is more disappointing because he had enough time to show his quality, yet he never took his opportunity.
Although he scored a goal against Sudan, that was his highlight of the tournament. Known for his trickery and skill on the ball, Chukwueze failed to show these qualities and was also disappointing on the ball.
It begs the question of why Eguavoen stuck with him throughout the tournament. Chukwueze was tipped to be one of Nigeria’s golden stars following his breakthrough campaign with Villarreal in the 2018/2019 season.
But surprisingly, that has been his best year so far, which is quite disappointing.
Pinnick is still a problem
Going into the tournament, it was clear Nigeria had a far from ideal preparation, no thanks to Amaju Pinnick, the president of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).
The NFF took the decision to sack Rohr just a month before the tournament, but it was his shenanigans during the competition that did not help the team.
The 51-year-old has this urge to always make himself the centre of attention and play to the gallery. If he is not talking tactics to Chukwueze at half-time, he is praying with Iheanacho before the match.
All these acts are not needed in the dressing room. It’s even shocking that the NFF president is always in the players dressing room before a match and at half-time with cameras following him. To what aim?
Also, the use of Super Eagles to launder the images of businessmen and politicians that do not really care about football in Nigeria should stop.
There is no need to make monetary promises to these players because it is not only a distraction, but the players do not need it.
Ghana’s clash just got bigger
Before the match against Tunisia, the little matter of the 2022 World Cup playoff draw took place on Saturday, and it pitted Nigeria against Ghana in one of the five matches.
Even without the disappointment of losing on Sunday, it was already a game to look forward to. But the loss on Sunday just made the stakes bigger.
Ghana had crashed out in the group stages of the AFCON, while Nigeria’s exit in the second round means a World Cup ticket is the only thing that can compensate for a disappointing campaign.
Sadly, only one of them can get it. It now depends on who wants it more.