ALEXANDRIA – Lalaina Nomenjanahary and Carolus Andriamahitsinoro scored either side of half time to hand the tiny Island nation a shock win over the three-time AFCON champions. Madagascar finished top of the Group and will play the third-placed team of anyone of Groups A, C or D while Nigeria will face the runners up in Group F which means a date with either one of Cameroon, Ghana or Benin.
With Nigeria already qualified and needing just a point to top the group, coach Gernot Rohr made five changes to the team that beat Guinea on Wednesday in a bid to ensure that fringe members of the team got playing time. In came goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, midfielder John Ogu and forward Samuel Kalu for their tournament debuts, while captain John Mikel Obi and defender William Troost-Ekong were restored to the starting lineup after missing out against Guinea.
Nicolas Dupuis, however, stuck with the same team that defeated Burundi 1-0 and if the assumption was that the Super Eagles would just turn up and grab the needed point, the Malagasy were having none of it and approached the game with real gusto.
Nigeria had yet to concede a goal in the tournament but against debutants Madagascar, they were up against Group B top scorers and Rohr had stressed about the importance of being compact defensively and would have hoped that a first tournament outing for Nigeria’s famed Oyinbo Wall would provide the defensive base that the Eagles needed to get their desired result.
It was Nigeria who started with purpose and could have taken the lead in the fourth minute after the restored John Mikel Obi nearly profited from a defensive mix-up to tap in but Pascal Razakanantenaina was alive to the chance and made a vital interception.
Ahmed Musa then shot over from a freekick close to the box after Odion Ighalo was brought down in the 8th minute.
Nicolas Dupuis had conceded in the pre-match conference that his team were likely to see less of the ball but that he had a plan for when they had possession. His plan was pretty clear, to defend with ten men outside possession, choking the midfield and blocking space for Nigeria to thrive.
It was a simple plan but an effective one especially considering the lack of pace in Nigeria’s midfield that featured the aging legs of Obi and Ogu.
When Madagascar took a shock lead, it was simply down to the efficacy of Dupuis’ plan. The Super Eagles were in possession in their half but found it impossible to pass through the massed lines of Madagascar and so resorted to aimlessly passing the ball around. Ogu then played a careless pass that sold Leon Balogun short although the defender should have been more aware to clear with Lalaina Nomenjanahary bearing down. Balogun’s ill-advised attempt to shield the ball was poor and Lalaina stole in to nick the ball and round Ezenwa to stick the ball into the gaping goal.
That goal appeared to spread a jitteriness across the Super Eagles and Balogun nearly invited Madagascar in with loose pass a few minutes later before Samuel Kalu back on the pitch for the first time since his unfortunate health scare before the Burundi match, then curled wide in the 19th minute.
Nigeria were the seasoned campaigners, and the three-time champions had enjoyed an extra 24-hours of rest over their opponents but it was the AFCON novices that looked the more enterprising and tournament-savvy. They were first to every second ball and were bold in the tackle were the Super Eagles shrank and were careless in the pass.
Ogu was having a difficult game and another loose pass led to a Madagascar counter in 23rd minute but Troost-Ekong was on hand to stem the break-away.
Nigeria then had a glorious opportunity to restore parity in the 31st minute when Etebo won the ball in the box and found Musa who had just Melvin Adrien in goal to beat. The winger could have clipped the ball past the goalkeeper but elected to round him, a decision that cost him the chance with right back Romain Metanire clearing the danger.
Madagascar nearly extended their lead in 44th minute but Faneva Andriatsima shot into the side netting after a beautiful buildup play and the minnows ended the half in the lead and on top on the balance of play.
Rohr wasted no time in bringing on Wilfred Ndidi for the dire John Ogu at the start of the second half but it was the Leicester man that contributed to the Eagles falling further behind eight minutes into the restart.
Ndidi committed a foul on the edge of the box from which Carolus Andriamahitsinoro scored with the ball taking a wicked deflection off Ndidi in the 53rd minute. The Madagascar bench erupted but their celebrations were in stark contrast to Nigeria who looked shell shocked.
Nigeria rallied and attempted to restore some pride with Ndidi twice going close and although Rohr threw on Alex Iwobi for Obi and Simon Moses for Samuel Kalu, the damage had already been done and the Super Eagles have been a handed a reality check in their bid for a fourth AFCON title.