Nigeria and Tunisia clashed in the third-place playoff at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Wednesday evening in Cairo. A third-minute goal was enough for the Super Eagles to take a 1-0 victory and third place in the tournament.
Nigeria made two changes from their 95th minute defeat to Algeria in the semi-final. Ola Aina replaced the suspended Chidozie Awaziem at right-back – a first start in the tournament in the former’s best position.
In goal, Gernot Rohr selected Francis Uzoho in preference to Daniel Akpeyi, meaning all three Nigeria goalkeepers have had a chance in the tournament as it continues to be a problem position for the Super Eagles.
The Carthage Eagles make four changes to their side with two of those enforced by injury. Mouez Hassen was ruled out with a head injury so Moez Cherifia took his place as Tunisia also used their third goalkeeper in the competition, amid numerous howlers.
In central defence, Nassim Hnid made his competitive debut as he replaced Dylan Bronn. In the central midfield three, Ayman Ben Mohamed dropped down to the bench with Ghilane Chaalali coming in, whilst captain, Youssef Msakni was out with muscle strain further forward; Anice Badri took his spot.
It took just three minutes for the opening goal to arrive. As Tunisia allowed Nigeria’s central defenders to get time on the ball, Oghenekaro Etebo dropped out to the left, motioning for Jamilu Collins to overlap. An excellent up-back-through move saw Etebo find Musa between-the-lines, a layoff for Ndidi, and Collins bursting onto a pass with a third man run.
The left back’s low cross was poorly handled by Cherifia, and Ighalo poked home to take himself to five goals in the Golden Boot race. That goal showed a typical trend in the first half. Tunisia and Nigeria were both able to get their fullbacks forward regularly as the wider forwards tucked in to make space.
AINA VS. PREDATORY KHAZRI
The Carthage Eagles looked to play out from the back whenever possible. Their shape when building up was a 2-3 in the first phase. The two fullbacks pushed very high up to provide width and allow Wahbi Khazri to play as an inside forward, whilst Badri did the same on the opposite flank. The midfield three all showed for the ball off the central defenders.
Oussama Haddadi was a key player on the left flank. His advanced positioning caused problems for Nigeria as Khazri moved inside, often untracked, but this also gave significant space for Aina to bomb forward and create a two-versus-one with Samuel Chukwueze on that wing.
Both teams got joy from this dynamic on that side, but had a trade-off. Khazri was tripped by Aina as he cut inside, then the Saint-Etienne man played in Taha Khenissi for a shot on a counter attack but Kenneth Omeruo blocked well. Later, Ferjani Sassi had a shot from good play in the left half-space by Khazri with his back to goal.
At the other end, Aina pulled a ball back for Iwobi to have a half chance, then Ighalo had a decent opening. The Super Eagles right back had bombed forward, giving space for Chukwueze to cut inside. He picked out Musa, again in a central position, to pick out Ighalo for the chance.
In midfield, Tunisia’s three men were doing a strong job. As their shape changed to something resembling a diamond when on the attack (Badri moving centrally; Khazri ahead of the midfield three), the shuttlers had demanding roles. They had to cover any break-downs, particularly Chaalali on the right to free Badri of defensive duties on transitions, whilst allowing Mohamed Drager to get forward from right back.
For the first 15 minutes of the second period, Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi were having a tough time. With little help from Iwobi, now encouraged to try to join substitute Victor Osimhen (on for hamstring victim, Ighalo), it was now very much a three-versus-two battle in the midfield area. Instead of simply dropping off and keeping the space between the defensive and midfield units compact, the Nigeria duo continued to try to press their direct opponents.
This saw the tournament-wide problem for Nigeria rear its head: man-orientated pressing in midfield opening up easy passing lanes into free opponents in front of the back four. Firas Chaoat, on for injured Taha Khenissi up front, missed a sitter after Khazri slipped him through on goal. The move had come after Ndidi pressed both high and out of his central zone, leaving a massive gap behind him for Tunisia’s playmaker to receive.
Twice in quick succession after that chance, this area was open again as Ellyes Skhiri got wrong side of Ndidi with ease and then Khazri again found acres to exploit. Once Badri was taken off for Sliti Naim, this forced Khazri into a wide role on the right and Nigeria had less to worry about in the pockets.
GAME PETERS OUT
The final 30 minutes after that change by Alain Giresse saw minimal action from Tunisia, one excellent Khazri dribble to beat Collins and some good hold-up play by Chaouat aside.
Nigeria had some chances to finish the game. Chukwueze tested Tunisia as they exploited some poor defensive organisation from a short corner – sending just one man out to deal with two players – whilst Samuel Kalu came close from a direct freekick. Osimhen also had a good low attempt in an otherwise ineffective, but hard-running outing. He at least brought the mobility that Paul Onuachu would not have done.
With less to worry about between-the-lines, and the centre back pairing of William Troost-Ekong and Kenneth Omeruo excellent in defending their box, Nigeria saw out the game with relative comfort.
Both sides took this game seriously in their team selections, but it was a fairly low-intensity match with little pressing or focus on defending compactly. Nigeria scored early from a fine move, made enough chances to score a second late on, but also handed Tunisia two of the game’s best openings as Khazri got free to create for teammates. The lack of positional discipline from their central midfield duo has given many teams space to enjoy between-the-lines, but few have turned that into goals.
Tunisia toiled hard in midfield as their trio moved the ball well and found space with their overload. However, their play lacked some structure in attack and there was rarely the link-up required to threaten two Nigeria central defenders in strong form.
This tournament will be remembered as one where Nigeria were reliant on wide play and never really fulfilled their attacking potential. Seeing Aina on his strongest side gave a glimpse of what could have been had Jamilu Collins not missed several games with illness.
Tunisia were competitive, sometimes downright unimaginative and always self-sabotaging as many of their goals conceded came from poor handling errors. Nigeria probably were about the third best team in a fairly low-quality Afcon, but too often relied on errors from opponents to score their goals.