ALEXANDRIA – The Super Eagles have become the first team to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt after Kenneth Omeruo’s header from a Moses Simon corner kick in the 73rd minute gave the three-time champions a slim 1-0 win over the Syli Nationale of Guinea at the Alexandria Stadium on Wednesday.
Nigeria’s players had boycotted the pre-match conference yesterday in a dispute with the Nigeria Football Federation over unpaid bonuses and allowances but they put all worries behind them to ensure progress to the Round of Sixteen on their return to the Nations Cup after a six-year hiatus.
It was yet another 1-0 win after the Eagles started their AFCON campaign with a similar result against debutantes Burundi and the Super Eagles have now failed to score more than once in five of their past six games.
But the objective was qualifying for the next stage at the earliest opportunity and with that secured, perhaps the team can now focus on being a lot more clinical in their subsequent games.
Gernot Rohr made five changes to the side that started against Burundi in the group opener on Wednesday. Expectedly, Chidozie Awaziem started at right back in place of injured Shehu Abdullahi who he had replaced against Burundi with the other defensive change coming in the form of Leon Balogun who replaced William Troost-Ekong as Kenneth Omeruo’s partner in the middle of defence.
Ahmed Musa captained the side in the absence of John Mikel Obi who dropped to the bench while Simon Moses started in place of Villareal winger Samuel Chukwueze allowing Alex Iwobi to play behind Odion Ighalo who replaced the ineffectual Paul Onuachu.
Guinea had been surprisingly held to a 2-2 draw by AFCON debutantes Madagascar in their opening game and head coach Paul Put had been scathing of goalkeeper Aly Keita who he blamed for the goals conceded by his team. It didn’t come as a surprise that Keita was dropped to the bench for Ibrahim Kone, one of three changes to the Guinean side.
Ernest Seka Boka replaced Julian Jeanvier in defence while Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita started for the first time in Egypt after coming on as a 62nd minute substitute against Madagascar. Mohamed Mady Camara was the man to give way.
Nigeria needed a win to become the first team into the knockouts with the added incentive of avenging their 2-2 draw against the Syli Nationale in Abuja in 2011 which stopped the Super Eagles from qualifying for the 2012 AFCON co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Guinea knew a win would take the top of the Group B depending on the outcome of the late kickoff between Madagascar and Burundi and the Syli Nationale duly started with plenty of enterprise and were nearly gifted a goal when Daniel Akpeyi fumbled midfielder Ibrahim Cisse’s fiercely hit swerving shot in the 2nd minute.
Nigeria carved out their first chance a minute later. Simon burst into the box after skinning Guinea left-back Issiaga Sylla and found Iwobi but the Arsenal man dawdled and the chance was lost with centre-back Falette Simon Augustin clearing for Guinea.
The Super Eagles had been widely panned for their uninspiring display against Burundi and seemed determined to make amends against Guinea with a much-improved attacking display in the opening minutes. Nigeria would have gone ahead in the 10th minute if Ighalo had had his wits about him but the striker failed to properly anticipate Musa’s centre with the ball bouncing off his shin and into the grateful arms of Kone.
Nigeria were dominant in the opening stages and again carved out another chance in Guinea’s box when Musa found Iwobi with a brilliant reverse pass in the 12th minute but the Arsenal man was bullied off the ball with Guinea conceding a corner which Ndidi nodded wide of Kone’s goal.
The three-time champions were finding joy on the flanks with Ola Aina and Moses both going close in quick succession. Guinea then had a chance from a free kick with Francois Kamano shaving Akpeyi’s crossbar but it was the Super Eagles who came close to scoring once more.
Simon sprung Ighalo with a beautifully weighted pass in the 31st minute that left the Guinean defence flatfooted but the Nigeria striker who had come off the bench to score the winner against Burundi elected to go it alone and struck the side-netting when he had Musa free and unattended to his left.
Iwobi then went close with a fierce strike in the 37th minute that had Kone scrambling. Awaziem then headed wide from the resulting corner as both sides finished level at the break with the Super Eagles dominant.
Nigeria returned after the interval with even more purpose and put the Syli Nationale on the back foot from the off with Wilfred Ndidi and Kenneth Omeruo creating good chances in quick succession. Musa then brought the crowd to their feet in the 60th minute with a buccaneering run down the left that saw him weave past two challenges only for his final ball meant for an onrushing Ighalo to be intercepted by a brilliant sliding tackle by Ernest Seka Boka.
The Super Eagles were unrelenting and just a minute later, Iwobi’s wicked dipping shot that looked destined for the top corner was prevented from nestling in the net by a finger tip save from Kone. Seka Boka was again on hand to save what would have been an easy tap in for Ighalo following good work from Iwobi and Musa down the left flank.
The Super Eagles had failed to make their chances from set-pieces count but they were finally able to score from their 10th corner when Leganes defender Kenneth Omeruo rose highest to plant a firm header from Simon’s corner beyond Kone and send the Nigeria through to the Round of Sixteen.