The Super Eagles first international match in nearly one year ended in familiar defeat against African champions Algeria as a Ramy Bensebaini strike settled a largely tepid affair at the Worthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt, Austria on Friday.
Left-back Bensebaini reacted sharply to turn a loose ball home after his initial header from Riyah Mahrez’s corner kick was blocked.
It was the Eagles’, who were resplendent in their new Nike jerseys, first defeat since Algeria beat them at the semifinal stage at the 2019 AFCON on route to winning the title.
Algeria, meanwhile, are now unbeaten in 19 matches, a run spanning two years and including two victories over the Super Eagles.
Eagles boss Gernot Rohr stressed he was looking to test his much changed side against the African champions rather than revenge, and while he would have positives to look back on, the lack of cohesion showed by his team shows there is still plenty of work to be done ahead of Tuesday’s friendly against Tunisia.
With many regulars missing through injury, Rohr named a lineup featuring two debutants and many returnees.
The ‘oyibo wall’ defensive partnership of William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun was restored for the first time since a defeat to Madagascar at the 2019 AFCON while Porto full back Zaidu Sanusi who started at left-back and Midtyjylland midfielder Frank Onyeka made their debuts.
Right-back Tyronne Ebuehi was back in the side for the first time since the 2-0 defeat of Iceland at the 2018 World Cup and upfront, Paul Onuachu made his first start since the victory against Burundi at the 2019 AFCON.
Algeria were also much-changed from the side that beat Nigeria last time but were the better side for much of the opening period and indeed the entire match.
Troost-Ekong, yet to play a minute of football this season after moving from Udinese to Watford, was shaky in the opening minutes and contributed to an uncertain start by Nigeria’s defence.
Algeria fashioned an opening just three minutes into the game following a flowing move down the right but Sanusi was alert to divert the ball for a corner after Maduka Okoye, making just his second appearance in goal, failed to claim the ball.
The early warning signs were glaring but Nigeria’s back line was jittery and paid the price as a corner conceded by Balogun was turned in by Bensebaini who reacted with speed to score after his initial header rebounded off a teammate.
The early goal further knocked the Eagles off kilter as Algeria dictated play with Nigeria on the back foot.
The Eagles didn’t register a shot on goal until the 22nd minute when Alex Iwobi’s dipping effort sailed perilously close to Rais M’Bolhi’s goal.
Mahrez, scorer of the heartbreaking free kick that ended Nigeria’s hopes in Egypt went close in the 36th minute but Okoye saved impressively from his long range hit.
Nigeria finally got a foothold in the game as halftime neared as the previously ineffectual Onuachu began to make his presence felt.
The gangling striker forced a corner from a lovely Sanusi cross in the 38th minute and then headed the resultant set piece wide.
A flowing move then ended with the impressive Sanusi crossing too close to M’Bolhi as Onuachu lurked menacingly in the box.
Mikel Agu came on for his first appearance since 2018 as Rohr hooked the disappointing Onyeka at halftime but the Eagles weren’t much improved and not much changed either when Moses Simon came on for Simon Kalu who was forced off with an injury in the 48th minute.
The impressive Ebuehi saw his shot from range skim past the Algerian goal in the 60th minute before being replaced by Kevin Akpoguma who came on for his debut just days after receiving his international clearance to represent Nigeria from FIFA.
Kelechi Iheanacho went close in added time after replacing Onuachu for his first international outing in two years and there was a late debut for 18-year-old former captain of the U17 side Samson Tijani as the game petered out.
So who passed Rohr’s test? The Eagles were disjointed as a unit, understandably perhaps, considering it was their first game in nearly a year and the limited time available to integrate new and returning players.
The Eagles boss will however be pleased with the showings of Ebuehi and Sanusi in particular and Iwobi was arguably Nigeria’s best performer on the night.
Okoye acquitted himself admirably and further strengthened his claim to the number one jersey, but Onyeka disappointed and Onuachu is still yet to convince and failed to grab his chance once again in the absence of Victor Osimhen, although the giant striker can point to a game plan that failed to maximise his attributes with crosses lacking from Nigeria’s wingers.
On the evidence of Friday’s showing, it is clear that the Eagles must improve markedly ahead of the final friendly against Tunisia on Tuesday.