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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Nigeria 2-0 Cameroon: Structured defence rather than thrilling attack powering Super Eagles

Nigeria were supposed to be the great entertainers at the Africa Cup of Nations. Something special has been brewing in the kitchens of Lagos and Abuja for a long time. A secret ingredient is being slipped into the portions of jollof rice they serve children. How else can you explain their incredible strength in depth upfront?

Victor Osimhen is the reigning African Footballer of the Year, Ademola Lookman is thriving with Atalanta in Serie A, and Terem Moffi is a key player for Nice who are second in Ligue 1 behind Paris Saint-Germain. The situation becomes even more ridiculous when you consider Bayer Leverkusen’s Victor Boniface pulled out through injury and Gift Orban, who joined Lyon earlier this week, did not make the cut.

Nobody knew how manager Jose Peseiro would combine them all, but everyone expected the results to be thrilling. However, it is Nigeria’s defensive structure which is crucial to their chances of winning the competition.

The Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium is situated on the banks of the Ebrie Lagoon, and was the scene of Cameroon’s 3-1 win over Nigeria in the 1984 AFCON final, their first  success in this tournament. The setting may have been picturesque and there may have been a lot of history to the fixture, but Nigeria’s 2-0 victory over their rivals on Saturday evening was not exactly thrilling.

This is the knockout stages of a tournament though and progressing is the only thing that matters. Senegal only scored one goal in the group stages in Cameroon two years ago and went on to lift the trophy, conceding just twice in the process. Nigeria were the joint-second highest scorers with six and were eliminated by Tunisia in the round of 16. They scored three times in the group stages here, including an own goal by Guinea-Bissau defender Opa Sangante and a penalty from William Troost-Ekong.

Instead of unleashing all of the attacking weapons at his disposal, Peseiro is pragmatic. This Nigeria team are compact and difficult to play through, while with Lookman, Osimhen and Moses Simon, they can threaten any opponent on the counter-attack. They have conceded once so far which was in their opening game against Equatorial Guinea who went on to thrash Ivory Coast 4-0.

All five of Cameroon’s goals in the group stage had come from set-pieces or crosses. Rigobert Song uses a 3-4-3 formation and the plan is to find Georges-Kevin Nkoudou in space to deliver the ball into the box. Nkoudou created 10 chances in the group stage, more than any other player.

Nigeria lined up in a similar system in their last 16 clash and the two sides ended up cancelling each other out. Semi Ajayi and Ola Aina would double up on Nkoudou to prevent him from progressing the ball while Calvin Bassey and Zaidu Sanusi shut down Karl Toko Ekambi on the other wing. Cameroon only had six shots, none of them on target, and one corner.

Vincent Aboubakar, Cameroon’s talisman and the top goalscorer at AFCON 2021, has been struggling with a thigh injury and only came on for the final 20 minutes. Brentford forward Bryan Mbeumo missed the entire tournament after undergoing ankle surgery in December. Nigeria deserve credit for being hard to break down, but Cameroon were not at full strength. It will be a completely different test if they face Morocco or Senegal.

There are obvious areas to improve. Lookman’s first goal came from a defensive error as Osimhen stole the ball and set up his team-mate for a simple finish. The first genuine moment of quality they produced came in the 86th minute, after their opponents switched to a back four and pushed more players forward, when the same duo combined down the left wing. Simon cleverly darted into the box and pulled the ball back for Aina whose shot was saved by Fabrice Ondoa.

Lookman’s second goal was slick, but Nigeria need to produce more of these moments if they want to beat Angola in the quarter-finals. The pressure will be on Osimhen, who has only scored once, to deliver.

The Napoli forward’s star power is undeniable. He could and did whip up the crowd on multiple occasions with a wave of his hand. He won tackles, single-handedly battled Christopher Wooh and Oumar Gonzalez and instructed his side throughout. The 25-year-old lost his voice from shouting so much. With Mohamed Salah injured and Mohammed Kudus back home following Ghana’s humiliating elimination, Osimhen does not have many rivals for the most exciting player to watch and it feels like there is more to come.

Cameroon’s time in the Ivory Coast has been dominated by Andre Onana’s decision to join the team late so he could play in Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on January 14. He is their most high-profile player, but did not feature against Nigeria. After all of the fuss involved in flying him by a private jet to make their opening game on time, Onana only made one appearance and did not make a single save.

This should have been a contest between the best striker on the continent and the best goalkeeper. Osimhen will not care though as Nigeria are one step closer to winning AFCON for the first time since 2013.

(Top photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

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