CAIRO – Odion Ighalo’s opportunistic strike earned Nigeria third place and a familiar bronze medal as the Super Eagles prevailed over the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia in the third-place match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
The 30-year-old tournament leading scorer found the back of the net in the third minute – his fifth of the campaign – to give Nigeria a 1-0 win over Tunisia at a hot, sultry and sparsely populated Al Salam Stadium in Cairo.
In what was a battle of the Eagles, it was the Super Eagles that proved their mettle in a game largely devoid of real quality and spark.
Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr stayed true to his words to ensure every member of his squad got a taste of the tournament as he handed a starting berth to Francis Uzoho in the Eagles’ goal with the other player yet to taste action, Victor Osimhen eventually entering the fray for a stricken Odion Ighalo in the second half.
Ola Aina returned in the place for the suspended Chidozie Awaziem in the only other change to the starting eleven as Rohr stuck with the rest of the players who had lost to Algeria in the semifinal.
Prior to the match, questions had lingered about how both teams would react after disappointing losses in the semifinals but it was the Super Eagles who managed to shake off the disappointment of their semifinal loss as they took revenge on another North African team.
In a game which lacked real quality and intensity – a losers final indeed, – it was Nigeria who showed the greater intent and desire and wasted little time in making their intentions abundantly clear.
Just two minutes in and the Super Eagles had made their first foray goalward as a lovely interchange on the right between the reinstated Ola Aina and Samuel Chukwueze set Alex Iwobi free in the box but the midfielder’s touch was unsure and the chance went begging.
Notice, however, had been posted and Nigeria’s next jaunt forward resulted in the fastest goal scored at the tournament so far.
Left-back Jamilu Collins’ dart forward was spotted by Wilfred Ndidi who released a perfectly weighted inside pass into the defender’s path on the left flank. Collins’ low cross then precipitated all manner of pandemonium in the Tunisian box with goalkeeper Ben Cherifa parrying the ball on to the shin of a nonplussed defender before the predatory Odion Ighalo took advantage and pounced on the rebound to tap in his fifth goal of the tournament and extend his lead atop the goal-scorers chart.
It was just three minutes on the clock.
The Tunisians were stung and sought to restore parity as quickly as possible and captain Wahbi Khazri found forward Yassine Khenissi with a delightful through ball in the eighth minute but Kenneth Omeruo showed fantastic awareness to snuff out the danger with a delightful tackle in the box.
That was about it for excitement in the first half and although Igahlo’s cross for a menacingly lurking Ahmed Musa was cut out in the thirteenth minute and Tunisia came close when Ferjani Sassi curled just wide of Uzoho’s goal in the fifteenth minute and Anice Badri attempted to dribble the entire Nigerian defence two minutes later, further moments of quality were lacking in a drab first half with the only thing of note being the injury suffered by Ighalo on the stroke of halftime.
The striker felt his knee as he attempted to control the ball and immediately signaled to be replaced although it took the start of the second half for his replacement Victor Osimhen to enter the fray for his debut as referee Gehad Gerisha brought proceedings to a halt.
The second half brought no real improvements in terms of quality and although the Carthage Eagles huffed and puffed as they sought a way back in, they often had to resort to strikes from range as Nigeria’s rearguard stood resolute.
Badri, Sassi and Mohamed Drager all tried from range but none came close to bothering Francis Uzoho in goal instead it was the Super Eagles who nearly extended their lead with Ben Cherifa stretching everyone of his sinews to keep out a wonderfully struck curling ball from Samuel Chukwueze which had seemed destined for the top corner.
With time running out, the game opened up a bit as the Carthage Eagles got more frantic as they desperately sought an equalizer.
Wahbi Khazri skinned Collins on the left in the eightieth minute but his dangerous centre was cleared by William Troost-Ekong, moments later, it was Osimhen with a chance of his own inside the box but the striker flashed his shot just wide of Ben Cherifa’s goal and Troost-Ekong had to be extremely alert to deny Khazri a minute later when the forward found space in the box.
The two losses Nigeria had suffered in the tournament had come with them designated as the away team but they held on this time to get the victory that ensured winning end to their campaign in Egypt.
A bronze medal might not have been what they envisioned when they embarked on their Egyptian Odyssey, but nothing quite beats winning.