Former Super Eagles’ defender, Isaac Semitoje has charged the current squad’s back-four to step up their efforts at the Africa Cup of Nations, as he noted many lapses in their 3-2 win against Cameroon.
Although Semitoje said he was happy to see the Eagles pull off a great comeback performance to eke out victory against the AFCON defending champions, and reach the quarter-finals, the Tunisia ’94 gold medalist stressed that it is not yet uhuru for Gernot Rohr’s team.
Semitoje added after a brace by Odion Jude Ighalo spearheaded a spirited fightback for Nigeria at Alexandria Stadium, Egypt on Saturday that Rohr has to knit his defence line better before they play South Africa in the last eight, while urging that the players should also talk more among themselves.
He admitted it was heartwarming, though, seeing the Eagles pull the chestnut out of the fire, as they had not been given much of a rating after they suffered a nightmarish 2-0 defeat by lowly Madagascar in their final group match last Sunday.
The rivalry between both neighbouring countries made for a cagey start, with the Super Eagles, who sliced the Indomitable Lions to tiny bits in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying race, showing more urgency and purpose at the fore.
Moses Simon had dithered unexpectedly as Cameroon slipped in defence before Ighalo, top scorer in the qualifying race with seven goals, put Nigeria ahead after connecting from a pass by Kenneth Omeruo in a melee that ensued following Oghenekaro Etebo’s free kick from the left. This was in the 19th minute. The ball deflected off a Cameroonian defender past goalkeeper Andre Onana.
Three minutes later, Simon fired a shot that was held by Onana, and at the other end, Stephane Bahoken, Clinton Njie and Choupo-Moting harassed the Nigeria defence as Kenneth Omeruo, William Ekong and goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi showed frail nerves.
The AFCON cup holders equalized in the 41st minute when Bahoken lashed home from a pull out as the Nigeria defence ball –watched, and then shot into the lead three minutes later when Njie shook off the feeble challenge of Ola Aina and shot past Akpeyi.
Six minutes after the restart, Nigeria nearly conceded an own goal as Omeruo and Ekong faltered at the rear. On the hour, Nigeria introduced former junior international Samuel Chukwueze, and this brought some verve, zeal and energy into the Super Eagles’ attack.
Three minutes later, Chukwueze’s brilliant run ended with defender Chidozie Awaziem’s cross, which Ahmed Musa cleverly chested for the better placed Ighalo to fire home his and Nigeria’s second of the evening.
With AFCON legends Nwankwo Kanu and Samuel Eto’o (who played against each other in the 2000 and 2004 finals, with honours even) seated in the VIP box, both teams chased a tie-breaker but it was Nigeria that got it in the 66th minute, as the Eagles profited with a clinical strike by Alex Iwobi from a smart pass by Ighalo.
Although they were hardly spectacular on the night, Ighalo’s man-of-the-match performance egged on the Eagles and landed them in the quarter finals, in which they will confront South Africa’s Bafana Bafana at Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday.
That came about later on same day, as 1996 champions South Africa shocked host nation, Egypt 1-0 at Cairo International Stadium, to set up another clash with familiar foes Nigeria, whom they defeated 2-0 in Uyo but had to force to a 1-1 draw in Johannesburg in the qualifying series for this championship.
Saturday’s feat was the sixth time that Nigeria would eliminate a defending champion from the Africa Cup of Nations. In 1976, a young squad captained by Christian Chukwu mauled then Cup holders Zaire (now DR Congo) 4-2 in Ethiopia, and in 1984, Nigeria edged Cup holders Ghana 2-1 in Cote d’Ivoire.
In 1994, on the way to winning a second title, the Super Eagles sent packing Cup holders Cote d’Ivoire after penalties in the semi final, and in 2004, bundled out Cameroon (winners in Mali in 2002) 2-1 in a quarter final match in Monastir, Tunisia.
Two years later, incidentally in Egypt, the Super Eagles ejected Cup holders Tunisia after penalties in an interesting quarter final match in Port Said.
Semitoje, though, stressed that Rohr has more work to do before lining his side out against South Africa, with special reference to the defence line, which he says needs more cohesion and rejigging to avoid similar mistakes they committed against Cameroon.
He affirmed: “I think that the coach has a lot to do. By talking with them they can improve and do well against South Africa’s team.
“What they need now is that one of them should take control of the defence by talking to them and, at the same time, playing a leading role also.
“Once they give themselves confidence and the coach does his work, they will do better against South Africa. Good luck to the Super Eagles.”