AFCON 2017: Egypt’s sucker punch, Nigeria’s agony

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To fail once at a task is a travesty, but to have his name associated twice with failing to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations would be impossible to live down for Siasia. Far more than Nigeria’s Afcon hopes, it is his legacy that is at stake

Carrying a national burden: Musa, Siasia and John Mikel Obi

Carrying a national burden: Musa, Siasia and John Mikel Obi

By Solace Chukwu

We know a number of things, both about the Super Eagles and Samson Siasia. Some are palatable, some unsavoury. Mohamed Salah’s calm finish, with three minutes left to play, was such a bitter pill to swallow though, mostly because it shook an entire nation out of mass hypnosis.

Against hope, it was convenient to believe that time had tempered the ability of Siasia’s teams to suffer moments of total implosion, that the flurry of attacking blows would not subside to reveal a soft underbelly.

In the end, it was Abdullahi Shehu, again reprising his role as a (non) full-back and somnolent, who failed to step out with the rest of the defence.

Fitting, one might say. Almost poetic, the inevitability of it all.

As expected, the Super Eagles produced some moments of sheer inspiration, especially following a tentative first half.

It would not be a Siasia team if they did not. Oghenekaro Etebo scuffed in a rebound from Kelechi Iheanacho’s intelligent dink, which rattled the woodwork, to open the scoring just as the team began to click through the gears.

Salah: dealt Nigeria the unexpected blow

Salah: dealt Nigeria the unexpected blow

That it was the former Warri Wolves man, improbably tasked with partnering new captain John Obi Mikel in midfield, who was farthest forward in the move was a consideration pushed to the back of overjoyed minds. He endured a mixed bag of a game, impeding the build-up time and again, and then just about doing enough to put off Ahmed Hassan ‘Koka’ as the Pharaohs fashioned the game’s best chance in the opening period.

What was abundantly clear, both before and on the evidence of the game, is that as a midfield pairing, Mikel-Etebo lacked the ability to effectively control a game or effect proper build-up. The latter, a vertical, head-down charging bull of a footballer, is entirely out of place in a double-pivot, and it showed.

With Mikel tightly marshalled, the team struggled to get the ball forward to Iheanacho between the lines.

The Manchester City man, making his first international start, was largely ineffectual, stuck in a halfway house, neither midfielder nor forward in the first half. He was then withdrawn following his contribution to the opening goal, just when he looked to be growing into proceedings, a substitution which proved purely cosmetic—Aminu Umar was busy rather than decisive, and it took away the option to make a defensive sub later on as the team began to tire.

If there is any consolation to be had, it is that it is a result that did not see the Super Eagles lose ground. A win in Alexandria in four days is doable, as well as imperative: this is not the fabled Egypt team of the noughties that toted up seven continental titles, though admittedly the likes of Salah carry significant threat.

It is also imperative, not only in order to leapfrog Egypt, but to ward off the attentions of the climbing Tanzania, who are now breathing down Nigeria’s neck. One point off the Super Eagles, and with a very winnable return leg against Chad in Dar Es Salam, it is not inconceivable that by the end of the March fixtures, there could be a new frontrunner for second place in the group.

To fail once at a task is a travesty, but to have his name associated twice with failing to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations would be impossible to live down for Siasia. Far more than Nigeria’s Afcon hopes, it is his legacy that is at stake: the nearly-man of Nigerian football, seemingly doomed eternally to fall just short, will hope he can finally see the challenge through to a satisfactory end.

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