This is the final entry in a 10-part series examining some of the best performances by the Super Eagles over the last two decades i.e. from January 1, 2001 to date, in no particular order.
This will strictly cover competitive internationals, so there is no place for, say, Nigeria’s friendly wins over Argentina in 2011 and 2017, or the win against France in 2009. There is also the possibility that a defeat might find its way into the ranking, if the actual performance was impressive enough to warrant it. Football is, after all, low-scoring and, as such, highly amenable to the effects of luck.
This entry is on an absolute classic of a game against a familiar World Cup qualifying foe.
Date: September 4, 2005
Venue: Stade Ahmed Zabana, Oran
“We are going for war in Oran and this is why the tie has been christened ‘Battle of Oran’. When you are going into a battle ground, you must be prepared to shed blood because it is difficult to come out of such an exercise unscathed. The players have realised that we have dropped too many points in the early round of matches and they have resolved to make up from now on.” — Austin Eguavoen
If the above words sound dramatic, the context in which they were uttered offers a measure of justification.
The 2006 World Cup qualifying series has provided an earlier entry in this series: the 3-0 win over Zimbabwe in Harare. Following that result, Nigeria were in pole position in a group featuring Angola, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Rwanda and Algeria.
However, by the penultimate game of the series, the Super Eagles were in a proper bind. Although level on points with Angola, the institution of the head-to-head rule as the primary tie-breaker meant the advantage lay with the Southern African side.
The abrasion of Nigeria’s lead – which came to a head in a 1-1 draw against Angola in the Kano heat – led to Christian Chukwu’s exit from the role. As has been established, there had never been a great deal of confidence vested in him by the Nigeria Football Association, and so that result offered the perfect excuse to swing the axe.
Predictably, the process of replacing Chukwu was less than clear.
When the dust settled, Frenchman Philippe Troussier seemed set to return eight years after his previous sacking. However, he pulled out at the very last second – reportedly, the FA were actually waiting for him to come sign his contract – citing health problems. It may simply have been that, having surveyed the situation, he realized how much of a lost cause qualifying was.
Into the breach stepped Eguavoen. A former international, he was at the time just starting to make his way as a coach, and the reviews were decidedly mixed. Nigeria’s 2003 U-17 side, under his guidance, had suffered the misfortune of exiting the World Cup at the Group Stage via a coin toss, but in truth they played quite forgettable football. Perhaps the only redeeming legacy of that side was the launching of a certain John Obi Mikel.
In any case, he has a fairly simple (but not straightforward), self-contained brief: the Super Eagles needed to win two games, and hope for a slip-up from Angola, in order to make the World Cup.
On paper, Nigeria had the tougher pair of games as well. Whereas Angola had matches against Gabon and Rwanda – two of the bottom three in the group – the Super Eagles needed to travel to Algeria and then face Zimbabwe on the final day.
That small edge would be moot, however, if Eguavoen and his team could not produce a win in Oran. In five previous meetings between the two nations on Algerian soil, Nigeria had never won, and had only managed one draw.
As was often the case during this qualifying series, skipper Jay-Jay Okocha ruled himself out of contention for the game, citing a groin injury. Wilson Oruma was recalled to the national team in his stead. Striker Julius Aghahowa, who had scored in the victory over Zimbabwe earlier, was also unavailable due to injury.
Lineup (4-4-2): Vincent Enyeama; Chidi Odiah, Joseph Yobo, Joseph Enakarhire, Taye Taiwo; Yusuf Ayila, Wilson Oruma, John Utaka, Christian Obodo; Ayo Makinwa, Obafemi Martins
In terms of selection, this game was significant in two ways.
First of all, it marked the point where Taiwo effectively took up the mantle of first-choice left-back. By this point, Ifeanyi Udeze had been struggling with injuries for quite a while, and even though he had started the previous qualifier against Angola, here the rampaging Taiwo got the nod.
Ahead of him, Obodo was fielded somewhat unnaturally on the left. It may or may not have been based on any greater logic beyond shoe-horning another ball player into the side, but Obodo’s natural predilections meant he took up narrower positions, allowing Taiwo to maraud down that flank.
The other significant decision came upfront, as Eguavoen went for a pairing of Martins and Makinwa.
It was a very natural front two in more ways than one. Beyond the obvious “big man-little man” dynamic, both players grew up playing football together in Lagos with FC Ebedei, and Martins in particular was keen to talk up their partnership.
“In terms of understanding, I enjoy playing with Makinwa even more than Adriano, whom I play with everyday at Inter Milan,” he claimed.
“We all know that Adriano is one of the best scorers in the world today but Makinwa is like a soul mate to me, maybe because of affection we have for one another in the past.”
This was the first time both players started upfront for Nigeria, and perhaps it’s easy to understand what came next: Makinwa had possibly his best game in a Nigeria shirt, and Martins scored twice and laid on another.
In terms of flow, this game was an absolute rollercoaster.
Nigeria began in the ascendancy, with Martins opening the scoring from the spot in the 20th minute. Curiously, it came following a passage of play that saw the Inter striker poke the ball home despite being wrestled to the ground by an Algerian defender, and there’s a good argument that there should have been a red card produced since the referee had decided to pull the game back.
The key here was intensity, and the sheer speed at which the Super Eagles were able to play simply overwhelmed the hosts.
Martins put another very presentable chance just wide after Makinwa slipped him through following a fine run infield from the right, and then just minutes before the break Makinwa hared off after a Martins flick into the left channel, looked up and played a pinpoint cross (oddly, tatgetmen tend to be really good crossers when they find themselves in wide areas) for Utaka to head home at the far post.
Utaka would turn villain just after half-time, adjudged by the Libyan referee to have retaliated following a poor tackle. The man advantage got the Desert Foxes’ tails up, and Hamza Yacef immediately pulled one back off a cut-back after Enakarhire got himself into an awful position.
With all of this action condensed into the opening three minutes of the second half, it seemed almost inevitable that an equalizer would arrive. Ten minutes later, it did: striker Mansour Boutabout crashing home a rasping effort from the edge of the box.
The pressure was pretty much relentless at this point, and the Super Eagles were rocking on their heels. However, providence and an inspired substitution turned the game around once more in Nigeria’s favour. First Karim Ziani somehow earned two bookings in quick succession, the second for a terrible tackle on Taiwo. Then, soon after, Eguavoen threw on Kanu in place of the flagging Makinwa in the 70th minute.
It took 10 minutes for Nigeria to regain the lead, but Kanu was in inspired form.
For the third, he was involved twice in the build-up: first, he received the ball on edge of the box on the left, and laid it off to the advancing Taiwo to crack goalward.
The effort was pushed wide by goalkeeper Hichem Mezair, but then improbably Kanu won a foot race all the way to the right hand byline. There, he did his famous drag back to leave one defender on the floor, came inside, then teed up a Yobo shot. The effort was parried back into danger, and Ayila poked home the rebound.
In the 88th minute, Kanu received the ball in behind, feinted a volley, but was shown wide by two Algerian defenders. Remarkably, he wriggled free, turned and bore down on the goal from the left, before being tackled to the ground. The loose ball ran to Martins, whose shot from a tight angle was palmed over by the goalkeeper. From the resulting corner (the original “corner taken quickly”) Martins fired into the corner for 4-2.
The fifth came after Obodo won the ball on the right, played to Martins in the Algeria half and then went forward. The striker held the return pass as long as he possibly could, waiting for Obodo to make the correct run. As soon as he was satisfied, he slipped it through for the midfielder to finish coolly.
It’s not often a coach’s first game in charge proves the highlight of their entire tenure, but that’s precisely what happened here. This was as good a performance as Nigeria produced under Eguavoen, who was relieved following the appointment of Berti Vogts in 2007.
Nigeria would famously win its final game – 5-1 against Zimbabwe – to no avail, as Angola got the results they needed. On the final day, a late Fabrice Akwa winner did for Rwanda, and confirmed that, for the first time since 1990, Nigeria would miss out on a place at the World Cup.