This is the third of 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. Read the first and second entries in the series.
This entry is from the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, and is a story of a triumph against the odds.
Date: February 3, 2012
Venue: Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenberg
Ahead of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) quarter-final against Cote d’Ivoire, a cloud of pessimism hung over the prospects of the Super Eagles. So pervasive was it, in fact, that influential midfielder Mikel John Obi took it upon himself to speak up.
“Those writing off Nigeria are doing so at their peril,” he insisted. “The media keep reminding us that Cote d’Ivoire is unbeatable but we shall see on Sunday.”
Coach Stephen Keshi felt less of a need to euphemize. “Nigerians have decided we are failures already.”
For the third time in five AFCON tournaments, the Super Eagles would be going up against the Elephants. On the previous two occasions, the odds had been pretty much split down the middle, and each time the Ivorians had run out quite comfortable 1-0 winners. This time, however, the circumstances were wildly different.
Disappointment for the Elephants, ecstasy for the Copper Bullets
A year prior, Zambia had made history by winning the AFCON for the first time in their history. In doing so, they honoured the memory of perhaps their greatest generation of players, most of whom perished in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon in 1993.
Along the way they also defeated Senegal, Ghana and, most remarkably, Cote d’Ivoire in a tense final ultimately decided on penalties.
It was the Elephants’ second loss in a final since their own golden generation broke out in 2004/2005. Whereas AFCON glory had to that point seemed for them a matter of ‘when’, falling short in 2012, perhaps for the first time, made ‘if’ seem the more appropriate proviso.
Even talisman Didier Drogba, now considered the ultimate “big game player”, failed to keep his nerve in Libreville, missing a penalty in regulation time against the Chipolopolo to further accentuate the sense of destiny, both in favour of Zambia on the night and against the Ivorians in general.
Starting from scratch
The conversation around the 2012 competition, beyond the magnitude of Zambia’s achievement, centered on the weak nature of the overall field.
Egypt, champions in 2010 for the third time in a row, had failed to qualify altogether to defend their crown. Cameroon finalists in 2008, were also absent, as were South Africa and 2010 semi-finalists Algeria and Nigeria.
Not since 1986 had Nigeria failed to make it through an AFCON qualification process, and the repercussion of that failure was swift. Erstwhile coach Samson Siasia was sacked and, in his stead, Keshi took charge of the Super Eagles in 2011.
The former captain laid out his manifesto: a rebuild was in order. With the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Seyi Olofinjana, Yusuf Ayila and John Utaka – stalwarts of the national team set-up for much of the 2000s – now out of the picture, it was necessary to midwife a new generation of players for the national side.
As such, the squad of 23 that rocked up to South Africa in Nigeria colours was extremely green. It had been arrived at through a painstaking process of trial and error, and featured an eye-watering 16 AFCON neophytes.
Weak first impressions from the Super Eagles
It should come as no surprise then that the Super Eagles were deeply unconvincing once the tournament kicked off. It was, after all, a group less than two years in the making, and it showed.
Draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia left Keshi’s side in a precarious position going into the final group game against Ethiopia. Ultimately two penalties, won and converted inside the final 10 minutes, steered Nigeria toward the knockouts, but in the eyes of many this was a thoroughly undistinguished side.
Even more alarming, two late concessions hinted at a lack of solidarity and concentration and, after the conclusion of the Group Stage, only Togo had a worse disciplinary record in the competition. Overt physicality, usually the preserve of minnows, was now a calling card for Nigeria.
Veteran journalist Emmanuel Maradas was most unabashed in his criticism of the team, referring to it as a “mediocre squad” that had “no chance” and “would struggle” against Cote d’Ivoire.
Cote d’Ivoire trampling all before them
That assurance was born, not only of the Super Eagles apparent under-performance, but of the ease with which the Elephants had navigated their own group.
Back-to-back wins over Togo and Tunisia, the latter a 3-0 hammering with Drogba left out of the starting lineup, allowed coach Sabri Lamouchi to rest some key personnel for the third game against Algeria. He described this as “essential”, and in any case his decision to rest players was vindicated by a 2-2 draw with Les Fennecs even with a weakened side.
There was also the expectation that Cote d’Ivoire would feed off the disappointment of 12 months prior when, despite going the entire tournament without conceding, they still came up short. This time, with no ghosts to wrestle, with the likes of Cameroon and Egypt missing once again, and with Drogba competing in his final AFCON, it was now or never.
Lineup (4-2-3-1): Vincent Enyeama; Efe Ambrose, Kenneth Omeruo, Godfrey Oboabona, Elderson Echiejile; Ogenyi Onazi, Mikel John Obi; Emmanuel Emenike, Sunday Mba, Victor Moses; Brown Ideye
In order to talk about how the tactical battle played out here, it’s necessary to first look back on what had informed Keshi’s decision-making with regard to the selection. Perhaps the best way to read his teams, at least to this point, is as exercises in on-site troubleshooting.
For the opening game against Burkina Faso, Moses was injured, and so the set-up featured a constantly interchanging front three of Ideye, Emenike and Ahmed Musa. That left the team with no single reference point in attack, which might have worked out better had the pitch at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit made it possible to implement a passing game with any real fluidity.
So, when time came to face reigning champions Zambia, Keshi dropped Ideye and started the now-fit Moses. He also dropped Joseph Yobo for his role in the Stallions’ late equalizer, and drafted young Omeruo into the heart of the defence.
In attack, the roles were more defined: Emenike led the line, and rarely swapped positions. On the horrid surface, the play could now be more direct with a dedicated focal point.
The downside to that though was that Emenike was isolated. Musa played a wider role than in the first game, and with Moses roving, there was precious little support for the target man. That brief should have been filled by Nosa Igiebor, nominally playing in the hole, but for the second game running, he largely underwhelmed, neither able to get up in support nor carry the ball forward with authority.
Needing a win against Ethiopia, Keshi dropped both Musa and Igiebor, starting with Ikechukwu Uche and Sunday Mba respectively instead.
Now, the Super Eagles had both Emenike and Uche as depth options, as well as a ball carrier in Mba. However, Uche’s relative lack of physical presence and explosiveness made breaking down a defensive Ethiopia side extremely difficult.
Setting the stage
So, to face Cote d’Ivoire, Keshi had two decisions to make. The first was easy enough: Fegor Ogude, who had started all three games to that point, was suspended for multiple yellow cards, and so in came Ogenyi Onazi to partner Mikel.
The second concerned the composition of his front three. For that, the Super Eagles coach put together all the lessons from the group matches, and recalled Ideye in place of Uche.
A greatly underrated factor in what was to unfold was the venue. By virtue of finishing second, Nigeria would play Cote d’Ivoire at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenberg, boasting a lush surface. It set the stage perfectly for a huge upset.
The tactical battle
Before the game, there had been some suggestion Lamouchi was considering dropping Drogba. In any case, the former Chelsea man ultimately got the nod upfront, with Yaya Toure in the no 10 role in a 4-2-3-1.
Despite both teams fielding the same starting shape, the Super Eagles were consistently able to dominate possession and outnumber the Elephants in midfield. The key to this was three-fold.
First, the methodical passing game that Keshi had been trying to instill was finally able to bud away from the sand dunes of Nelspruit. Second, the Ivorian pressing approach without the ball was terrible. Here, Yaya was particularly culpable: in their 4-4-2 out of possession, he neither applied pressure on Omeruo nor worked hard enough to prevent passes into Onazi.
Third, and most importantly, was the movement of both Moses and Mba. While the latter occasionally dropped into the middle to create superiority, he also made runs into the channel between left-back Siaka Tiene and the centre-back to exploit the wide positioning of Emenike.
Moses, on the other hand, concentrated on receiving the ball between the lines and on the blind side of the Ivorian midfield. He took up intelligent positions, but at times it was almost too easy to find him.
In this move, Mba moves into Tiote’s zone and so Onazi is free to receive the ball. Mikel holds a deep position, forcing Salomon Kalou to mind him and so allowing Moses to drop into the space on the outside of Romaric, receive the pass and flip the switch. That sudden burst of acceleration, whether from Mba or Moses, was an important part of the plan to catch the Ivorians out. “We had to speed up at times and catch players like Drogba and Yaya Toure off guard,” Keshi revealed.
Without the ball, the Super Eagles were simply more energetic, pressuring the pass into midfield and knocking their more star-studded opponents off their stride.
“We played long balls and that was not our usual tactics,” Kalou said afterward. “We are sharper when we play between the lines. That is when we are more dangerous but today, we didn’t play that way.
“We knew that Nigeria will stop us from seizing the midfield. We were also expecting them to come really physical because we know they are a powerful team.”
It is strange to hear it suggested that a Cote d’Ivoire side featuring the likes Yaya, Drogba, Romaric and Didier Zokora was somehow physically weak. However, it was not so much the strength as it was the sheer intensity and sudden variations in tempo. “We took our time to study the way they played and we had our plan together,” said Keshi.
For all Nigeria’s domination, there really was not a large volume of chances. Ideye’s finishing was always notoriously spotty, and Emenike missed a gilt-edged opening, but the goals, when they came, had little to do directly with the tactical framework within which the game was played.
For the opener, Romaric fouled Mba quite a distance out, and from the resultant free-kick Boubacar Barry dropped a bollock, wafting a fist at Emenike’s meaty shot.
The Elephants roused themselves after the break, equalizing through a Tiote header from a free-kick. Again, the main point of interest here was the curiosity of Drogba taking the set-piece rather than contesting the header in the box, not anything tactical.
After a brief spell following the equalizer where Yaya had a fierce shot saved, the Super Eagles again began to re-assert control. With 12 minutes to go, Omeruo intercepted a loose ball, dribbled infield and played a ball out to the left where Mba was stationed. Using Echiejile’s run on the outside as a sort of decoy, he zipped through the length of the Ivorian half, only needing to evade one challenge before striking a shot that deflected off Sol Bamba and looped over Barry for the winner.
While there was certainly an element of Keshi harping on it in order to create a siege mentality, it is difficult to overstate just how unfancied the Super Eagles were coming into this.
According to some reports, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) had gone as far as making travel arrangements for the team on the assumption they would be eliminated.
While this was denied, it placed some strain on the relationship between Keshi and the NFF. One might even argue that it kicked off a chain reaction that led directly to Nigeria’s failure to qualify for another AFCON until six years later.
On this night, however, the former Togo and Mali coach engineered a triumph of tactical savvy, and set Nigeria on the path to a third Africa Cup of Nations title.