It’s time for the knockout stages at AFCON 2021 and, after the competition really came into life in the final round of group games, one team look to be head and shoulders above the rest.
Nigeria arrived in Cameroon on the back of a turbulent preparation with previous coach Gernot Rohr sacked just a couple of weeks before their opening game, with paperwork issues and Covid denying them the services of two key players in Emmanuel Dennis and Victor Osimhen.
With poor results against lesser ranked nations – including a 1-0 home defeat by the Central African Republic, ranked 94 places below Nigeria in the world rankings – in October, Rohr, who had led the Super Eagles to the 2018 World Cup and a third-place finish at the 2019 AFCON, was replaced by technical director Augustine Eguavoen.
This change of coach led the African side to then decide to call up Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis who had not been included in the initial 40-man squad despite impressing in the Premier League with strugglers Watford, scoring eight goals and providing five assists.
Although Dennis had not been capped at international level since 2019, Eguavoen decided his form merited a return. After a club versus country dispute over whether Nigeria missed a deadline to advise the Premier League club that the forward was being considered for selection, the forward chose not to travel.
Napoli striker Osimhen also did not join up with the Super Eagles after a facial fracture suffered playing for the Partenopei and then a bout of Covid saw him inform Eguavoen that he “just felt he was not in the right of mind, physically and psychologically”.
Despite this, the three-time African champions travelled to Cameroon with a strong squad including Leicester’s Kelechi Inhenacho and Wilfried Ndidi, as well as Joe Abribo of Rangers.
They got off to the perfect start as they opened with a victory over Egypt, courtesy of Ihenacho’s superb finish before a comfortable win over Sudan with forwards Samuel Chukueze, Taiwo Awoyni and Moses Simon scoring in 3-1 win sealed their place in the quarter-finals.
Second-half strikes from Almeria’s Sadiq Umar and captain William Troost-Ekong against Guinea-Bissau maintained their perfect record and they will look to earn a place in the quarter-finals for the second successive tournament when they face Tunisia tomorrow.
Their spread of six different goalscorers means they have not missed the mercurial talents of Osimhen and Dennis while no-one has a better defence.
In qualifying, under Rohr, they comfortably booked their place in Cameroon by winning their group containing Sierra Leone, Benin and Lesotho as they finished unbeaten with 14 points from six games.
Their first game saw them recover from an early Stephane Sessengon penalty for Benin to claim an important victory with Samel Kalu’s second-half strike before a late Osimhen double saw them ease past Lesotho.
A third match of the campaign was one that many Nigerians would probably rather forget although it looked all so simple against Sierra Leone when an Alex Iwobi double, and Osimhen and Chukwueze strikes put them 4-0 up after half an hour.
The Leone stars pulled one back before the break and in a remarkable last quarter, a Alhaji Kamara brace either side of a Musthpha Bundu strike completed a scarcely believable comeback.
Four points gained from reverse matches against Sierra Leone and Benin saw Nigeria seal their place at the AFCON before signing off with a 3-0 win over Lesotho.
The spine of the team with centre-back Troost-Ekong and midfielder Ndidi remain from their agonising last-gasp defeat to Algeria in the 2019 semi-finals, but they have some exciting debutants at this level with the likes of Aribo and Taiwo Awoyni.
Eguavoen will be expecting his side to progress against Tunisia as they look for their first title since 2018, with the Super Eagles flying high at AFCON 2021.