On Sunday morning of January 23 2022, Nigerians were full of optimism in the country’s chances of winning against Tunisia in the Round of 16 of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.
It is hard to fault the optimistic Nigerians as the Super Eagles had emerged as the favourite for the title following a flawless group stage performance.
The three-time African champions sent out a statement of intent with a 1-0 win over an Egyptian side that had arguably the best player in the world at the moment, Mohamed Salah.
While the scoreline looked close, the gulf in the performance of both teams was clear, and that sent out a warning to the rest of Nigeria’s rivals.
The Super Eagles backed up the win against the Pharaohs with comfortable victories over Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.
In contrast, Tunisia had only qualified as one of the four best third-placed teams after winning just one of their games in a group that had Mali, Mauritania and The Gambia.
So when the Round of 16 pitted both teams against each other, all the odds were in favour of Nigeria. However, what happened was a tactical masterclass from the Carthage Eagles to secure a stunning 1-0 win.
It was a defeat that left many fans upset and disappointed, considering the high expectations going into the clash.
But while the defeat is a painful one, it could also be a blessing in disguise for the team ahead of the crucial 2022 World Cup Qualifier against Ghana in March.
Going into the tournament, Nigeria had a far from ideal preparation, which made many doubt their chances. It started when the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) sacked Gernot Rohr as the coach one month before the competition to replace him with Austin Eguavoen.
Although Rohr deserved to go, the timing of his sacking was questionable and not well-thought. The Super Eagles suffered another blow when four key players in Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis, Leon Balogun and Abdullahi Shehu all pulled out of the squad.
Osimhen and Dennis would have definitely added more quality in contrast to the disappointing show from Taiwo Awoniyi, who led the line in Cameroon.
So it was a shocker when the team started the competition like a house on fire because not many believed in the team’s chances.
But after the game against Egypt, expectations began to grow, and there was more interest in the team. Their group stage performance received praises from critics and fans.
However, it appears the Super Eagles got high on their praises, which eventually led to their defeat against the Carthage Eagles.
With all these factors taken into account, it will not be ridiculous to say the loss is a good thing for the Super Eagles as it gives the team to address the issues that affected them pre and during the tournament.
Firstly, the NFF must address the confusion surrounding the coaching situation. Ahead of the AFCON, the organisation announced the appointment of Jose Peseiro as the permanent replacement for Rohr.
Peseiro was expected to take over from Eguavoen after the AFCON, but there are now rumours that Eguavoen will stay in the job until after the two-legged playoffs against Ghana.
While it is not a problem if Eguavoen stays in the role because, after all, the team played well under him in Cameroon, the NFF must come out to confirm the rumours as this will help not only the coaches but also the players.
However, if Eguavoen indeed stays as expected, the 56-year-old will need to do better tactically. In fairness, Nigeria were exciting to watch again under Eguavoen compared to the uninspiring display in Rohr’s last days on the job.
Also, considering the lack of preparation and time, he did well with the team. However, it will not be harsh to say he is one-dimensional, judging from the team’s performance in Cameroon.
Nigeria’s main attacking threat came from the flanks, which they used to perfection in the group stages. But while it did work in the group stage, they were not so lucky against Tunisia.
The Tunisians did their homework on the Super Eagles, doubling up on Moses Simon, who was Nigeria’s chief creator in the group stages. At the same time, Samuel Chukwueze also could not find his way through against a well-organised Tunisian defence.
It meant the Super Eagles had to find a way through the middle, but they could not carve out openings as they had no creativity, while they had also not used that channel before.
This problem put Eguavoen’s tactical acumen to the test, but he failed as Nigeria struggled to create clear chances even after making five changes and changing the team’s shape.
In retrospect, the game against Guinea-Bissau offered Eguavoen the chance to test his tactical flexibility, but he failed to take the opportunity as the team stuck to the wing-play.
His failure to tweak the team’s style against the Wild Dogs came back to haunt him. Nonetheless, he cannot dwell on it for too long as Nigeria have two crucial games against Ghana, with the winner qualifying for the World Cup.
The Super Eagles cannot afford to miss the World Cup following the AFCON disappointment, which is why Eguavoen needs to improve on his tactics in the next 30 days.
Ghana must have seen how Tunisia neutralised Nigeria’s threat and are likely to employ the same style. It is now left for Eguavoen to make sure he is flexible in his approach to the game and not rely on wing play alone.
It is important the creativity problem in the middle of the park is solved, which means he may need to dump the double-pivot midfield pairing of Wilfried Ndidi and Joe Aribo.
The wingers will definitely still be involved, but there must also be more input from the middle to avoid a repeat of the Tunisia disappointment.
The loss to the Carthage Eagles came as a shock, but it is also a blessing in disguise as it shows the team’s weakness, which allows Eguavoen the chance to correct it in the two massive games against Ghana in March.