This is the seventh 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. The sixth entry is here.
This latest entry sees us return to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Date: February 6, 2013
Venue: Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban
In the eyes of a surprising number of Nigerian football fans, the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) triumph has a huge asterisk against it.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
2013 marked a transition to odd-year tournaments, and so came only 12 months after Zambia’s historic win in 2012; continental heavyweights such as Cameroon and Egypt were absent; the Super Eagles team for that tournament was only a few months in the making, and so there was little emotional investment.
Some reasons make more sense than others, of course, but from a storyline point of view, the win perhaps suffers for the anticlimactic nature of it.
After a disappointing group campaign where Stephen Keshi’s side needed two penalties in the final 10 minutes to finish behind Burkina Faso, Nigeria suddenly came alive in the quarter-final. That victory over Cote D’Ivoire, an earlier entry in this series, was so exhilarating, both in outcome and performance, that it immediately installed the Super Eagles as tournament favourites.
After all, to that point it had seemed inevitable that the Ivorians would win. To topple them was to immediately assume their mantle, and considering that the field (Ghana aside) did not seem particularly arduous, all the tension was leached out of the rest of the competition.
As an instance, this semi-final against Mali should have been laden with anxiety. Instead, there was a mostly relaxed atmosphere.
For one thing, Nigeria have never lost to Mali in a competitive international at senior level, and have beaten them in three of their five meetings at the AFCON.
There was also the fact that Keshi had previously coached Mali for three years, and was keen to play up his familiarity with the players, much to the irritation of the incumbent Patrice Carteron.
“Ninety per cent of their current players used to play for me when I was the head coach,” said Keshi. “So I know what to expect from them.”
Despite the win over Cote D’Ivoire, Keshi was undecided over his midfield trio. He could stick with what had worked against the Elephants, or he could reinstate defensive midfielder Fegor Ogude, who had been suspended for that quarter-final.
It was not a straightforward choice though: Ogude had started all three games in the group, and was suited to a midfield battle with the physical Malians.
Mali finished runners-up to Ghana in Group B, their only win coming against Niger. They then stood back and watched hosts South Africa unravel in a penalty shoot-out in the last eight, and came into this match as the underdog.
The style under Carteron was far from swashbuckling, focusing heavily on crossing. Mali were nevertheless difficult to break down and were in their second successive AFCON semi-final after the disappointment of the late 2000s.
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
Keshi ultimately went with the same side that had triumphed against Cote D’Ivoire, but it was not simply a matter of replicating the approach.
Unlike in the quarter-final where Nigeria set the tone right from the off and seized the game by the scruff of the neck, Mali started quite brightly here in Durban. Seydou Keita flashed a header from a corner wide in the 12th minute, and a minute later Mohammed Sissoko fired over the top from just outside the box.
Soon after, Emenike then came close to opening the scoring, but failed to beat Mamadou Samassa in the Mali goal. The message was clear: it would not be a cagey affair.
Unfortunately for Mali, that suited their opponent a lot more than it did them. While they certainly had the energy to assert themselves, and seemed intent on pressing high, they were vulnerable to raw speed.
As such, whereas the Super Eagles were quick to cut through Cote D’Ivoire’s lines, here the build-up was slower, drawing the more compact Malians out and then either seeking to accelerate the passing upon entering the final third or play in behind their defensive line.
There was also a weakness on the left side of the Mali defence, where the enthusiastic Adama Tamboura was stationed. Against Ghana in the Group Stage, he gave away a penalty for a reckless tackle, and was constantly targeted; against South Africa, his inability to hold the offside line exposed his team, and he was dragged narrow for Bafana’s opener. Eager as he was on the attack, with his tendency toward a lack of concentration, he could be got at.
Nigeria would eventually open the scoring in the 25th minute, and packed three goals into the 20-minute spell just before the interval.
First, Onazi sweeps the ball out to the right to Moses to take on Tamboura 1v1. The full-back actually dives in, but fails to win the ball, and again over-commits in the aftermath. Moses nutmegs him going the other way and plays a low cross across the box for Echiejile to stoop and head home.
Then, five minutes later, it’s two. Once again, Moses is at the heart of it, drawing out a defender and spinning in behind, before slipping a pass inside of Tamboura, who has his bearings all wrong. Emenike runs clear, rolls the ball across and Ideye bundles it home past Samassa.
The third goal – a deflected free-kick – features a completely freakish deflection, but the game is effectively won by half-time.
Mali made two attacking changes early in the second half, and started brightly, with Keita meeting a presentable chance inside the box with his weaker right foot and putting it wide. Realizing they would overcommit, Keshi surprisingly took Moses off eight minutes after the restart and sent on Ahmed Musa, the ultimate speed merchant, to exploit the gaps in behind.
Pointedly, he goes to play on the right, as opposed to the left, and seven minutes after coming on, a Mali attack breaks down with Tamboura wildly out of position and Musa takes advantage of some poor body orientation and an ill-advised offside line to sprint through and score.
He nearly gets another, again from a pass slipped inside Tamboura by Emenike, but having put the ball in the back of the net, he is pulled back for offside.
While this was objectively a more dominant performance than the win over Cote D’Ivoire, it is certainly the less memorable of the two. It lacked the crackle of intensity and tension that a game of that magnitude should have had.
It also didn’t help that Mali’s defending here was so naive as to be almost laughable. Keshi admitted afterward that his team had “taken advantage” of their lack of pace, and based their entire attacking approach on it.
The Super Eagles would go on to win the competition, beating Burkina Faso 1-0 in a poor final. While there was never a doubt as to which was the better team, Nigeria clearly played within themselves.
Their real showpiece performances of the tournament had already been given, and they had nothing left to prove. They simply could focus on winning.