This is the fifth 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 fourth entry is here.
This entry is the most recent in the series to date, and features the old enemy. No, not Ghana.
Date: September 1, 2017
Venue: Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo.
In June 2016, the draws for the final round of CAF World Cup qualifying were conducted. The outcome: Nigeria went into Group B, along with Algeria, Zambia and Cameroon.
By this point, the Super Eagles had stumbled in qualifying for consecutive Africa Nations Cups, had cycled through four different coaches in two years and were in almost complete disarray. By contrast, Algeria were the highest-ranked team on the continent, Zambia had been African champions in 2012, and Cameroon were, well, Cameroon.
In January 2017, the Indomitable Lions would defeat Egypt to win that year’s AFCON, a fifth triumph.
The Rohr era begins
Two months after that arduous draw was revealed, Nigeria appointed German Gernot Rohr to lead the national team.
To that point, aside a run to the UEFA Cup Final with Girondins Bordeaux in the 90s, Rohr had little to recommend him.
He had guided Gabon to the knockout round at the AFCON in 2012 for the first (and only) time in their history, but that was on home soil. His coaching experience also took in undistinguished spells in charge of Nantes, Burkina Faso and Niger—hardly choice pickings.
And yet, his appointment – panned and pilloried as it was at the time – completely righted the course of the Super Eagles.
His first game in charge, a dead rubber against Tanzania at the end of 2017 AFCON qualifying, brought Nigeria’s only win of the series.
World Cup qualification began with a slim 2-1 win away against Zambia, and was followed by a 3-1 win over Algeria (who had fallen into managerial uncertainty) at home. Suddenly, the Super Eagles were six from six, and were in pole position in the group.
The next challenge: the old enemy, reigning African champions Cameroon in Uyo.
State of affairs: Cameroon
Under Hugo Broos, Cameroon surprised many to win the AFCON in 2017.
For starters, the Belgian had been in charge for just under a year. Then, under his watch the Indomitable Lions had endured a difficult start in World Cup qualifying, a pair of 1-1 draws earning only two points from six.
While a point away in Algeria was creditable enough, failing to beat Zambia at home in Limbe meant Broos was immediately under pressure, and it is not a stretch to imagine he would have been sacked had Cameroon underwhelmed at the AFCON. Instead, they rallied to win the lot.
That victory was predicated less on star power. Indeed, there were constant changes in personnel from one game to the next, especially in attack where Broos seemed unsure of his best side. What worked in their favour, however, was a sense of unity, the absence of egos, a disciplined defensive base and speed on the counter.
This all needed to translate upon the resumption of World Cup qualifying, and realistically they would need to get something against Nigeria on the road to stand a chance of turning around their fortunes. “We know before this game that losing points to Nigeria is elimination from the World Cup,” Broos said on the eve of the encounter. “For now the pressure is ours, we have to win.”
Lineup (4-2-3-1): Ikechukwu Ezenwa; Shehu Abdullahi, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Elderson Echiejile; Ogenyi Onazi, Wilfred Ndidi; Moses Simon, John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses; Odion Ighalo
Injury to substantive no 1 Daniel Akpeyi meant Ikechukwu Ezenwa started in goal for the first time under Rohr. The returns of Mikel and Moses also saw Alex Iwobi dropped to the bench, and here Odion Ighalo led the line.
It is worth remembering that this game was the first competitive outing following Rohr’s first loss as Super Eagles coach. That defeat, against South Africa in Uyo, was the consequence of an utterly rudderless performance, harking back to the dark days of Sunday Oliseh’s brief stint at the helm.
Crucially this time, along with Moses and Mikel, Balogun was also back in the team to offer composure in possession and organization out of it.
Difficult opening as Cameroon dominate
This was the first real glimpse of what a Rohr team looked and played like. The first impressions were…not great.
Nigeria actually began this game pretty poorly, and Cameroon had the better of the early exchanges, closing down very well in midfield and forcing Onazi and Echiejile in particular into concessions on a few occasions.
Only when Mikel dropped deeper were the Super Eagles able to sustain the ball in the middle of the park, but that meant the team resorted to long balls toward Ighalo, who was isolated upfront.
The early intensity of the visiting side wore off after the opening 15-20 minutes, but really the course of the game turned on two yellow cards.
In the 23rd minute, centre-back Michael Ngadeu was booked for a foul in the channel. Two minutes later, his partner Adolphe Teikeu was booked for a foul just inside the Cameroon half.
Both fouls were drawn by Ighalo.
At this time, the jury was very much out on Ighalo as a member of the Nigeria national team. His goal return was meagre, his lack of movement was also fiercely criticized, and while he was no slouch, he certainly lacked raw explosiveness.
His move to China Super League side Changchun Yatai had further solidified the case against him in the eyes of many, and even though Rohr had stated that transfer would do him no harm, he had been left out of the squad altogether for the loss against South Africa.
This game against Cameroon was actually the first time Ighalo would start in a competitive international since the German coach took charge, and so this was an audition of sorts.
The location of the fouls on Ighalo is important, as it illustrates what he did well: he was threatening the Indomitable Lions back line in both directions, coming short on occasion, as well as spinning behind to chase balls into space.
He had enough speed of thought to outwit both centre-backs, and twice they were caught a fraction late. Their bookings meant neither was in a position to push up or put in tackles for the rest of the game, and that immediately made Cameroon less compact.
Five minutes after Teikeu’s booking, Nigeria broke the deadlock. The situation was innocuous enough: a goal-kick was thumped into the Nigeria half, the header was won by Ekong and the ball fell to Mikel between the lines.
Where previously one of the centre-backs would have stepped out to him, here they hung back. That gave him enough time to cushion the ball and help it behind the defence for Ighalo to chase.
The striker ran through, held off Ngadeu, chopped back onto his left foot (safe in the knowledge neither defender could touch him), and slipped the ball into the bottom corner.
Nigeria ravish Cameroon on the break
The flow of the game did not immediately change, however. Nigeria still struggled to put attacks together, and relied on long balls into the final third for the most part.
What had changed, however, was that, having gone a goal ahead, they didn’t have to force the issue, and could now counter-attack.
Two minutes before the break, Mikel poked home from a clever corner to double the lead. However, the corner had come from a sequence of three passes that took the Super Eagles from their own by-line (a superb Balogun tackle) to the Cameroon penalty area where Moses had seen his intended centre blocked.
The visitors continued to have the better of the ball after the half, with Ezenwa pulling off vital interventions to thwart both Vincent Aboubakar and Andre Zambo Anguissa. Still, it only took 11 minutes of the restart for Nigeria to once again roar through them on the counter: between Moses’ interception just outside his own penalty area and his finish – via a lung-bursting run and passes from Mikel and Simon – there were 15 seconds.
That effectively ended the game as any kind of contest, and a late header from substitute Kelechi Iheanacho put an extra lick of glossy paint on a fine evening’s work.
“Why should we have a chance to the World Cup? We need to win all three games and Nigeria have to lose all three games, I don’t think that will happen,” said Broos in the aftermath of this game.
He was correct; three days later, the Super Eagles secured a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in Yaounde to definitively eliminate Cameroon from the running.
Qualification to the World Cup was sealed following a nervy 1-0 win over Zambia the following month.
This was the first time it became apparent that appointing Rohr had been the right call, and also the first time most dared start to believe. To beat Cameroon by this margin, thereby denying them a place in Russia, only served to make the outcome sweeter.