DOUALA: Nigeria put behind their tumultuous build-up to the Africa Cup of Nations by beating Mohamed Salah’s Egypt on Tuesday with a display that sent out an early warning to their rivals in Cameroon.
Kelechi Iheanacho struck a superb first half finish for a 1-0 victory at the start of Group ‘D’ action in Garoua.
Nigeria had fired coach Gernot Rohr just weeks before the tournament, scraped through the recent World Cup qualifiers in unconvincing fashion and also lost key forward Victor Osimhen to injury. The Nigeria Football Federation also failed to send out call up letters in time for strikers Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo, whose clubs then refused to relaese them for the tournament in Cameroon.
But despite all the setbacks, Nigeria gave their supporters much to enthuse over with Tuesday’s showing.
In contrast, it was a disappointing day for the north African heavyweights.
Champions Algeria were held to a disappointing goalless draw in Group ‘E’ by Sierra Leone, making their return to the finals for the first time since 1996.
Algeria had several chances but struggled with the heat in Douala and failed to break through a resolute defence, where former England international Steven Caulker was making his debut. He switched his international allegiance on the eve of the tournament.
The results threw some of the pre-tournament predictions out the window as early as the third day at the African Cup. If there was a team to watch at the tournament it was Algeria, on a run of 35 games unbeaten since 2018. And if there was a player to watch it was Liverpool’s Salah, the Premier League’s leading scorer who has a claim to being the best in the world right now.
Might be time for a bit of a re-think.
It is early in the tournament, though. The top two teams in each group progress automatically to the knockout stages and there’s the best part of a tournament still to play.
Iheanacho, who is now Nigeria’s lead striker for the finals, crashed a half-volley from the edge of the box into the top corner after 30 minutes to settle the contest.
However, Nigeria should have added at least a couple more goals in what was the best performance by a team in the finals so far.
Egypt failed to shift out of first gear and could not get talisman forward Salah into the game as he cut an isolated figure up front.
“We had three things in mind — winning, retaining possession and cutting off the supply to Salah,” said Nigeria caretaker coach Augustine Eguavoen.
“Every game will be treated like a final because each team in Cameroon must be respected regardless of the name of the country. There are no minor football nations anymore in Africa so if you do not plan and make the effort, you can be shocked.”
In Tuesday’s other Group ‘D’ game, Guinea Bissau and Sudan played out a goalless draw. Pele, whose full name is Judilson Mamadu Tuncar Gomes and is a midfielder with French club Monaco, squandered a penalty for Guinea-Bissau.
Earlier, Algeria found no way past Sierra Leone goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara, who celebrated the result as if it was a tournament win. Sierra Leone squad players sprinted from the bench onto the field at the end to join his celebrations.
For just one day, a 22-year-old goalkeeper who plays for East End Lions in Freetown, Sierra Leone had the better of Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and the rest of Algeria’s powerful forward line.
The heat and humidity of a mid-afternoon kick-off at the Japoma Stadium failed to help Algeria, but Sierra Leone deserve enormous credit for their display.
“We were up against well organised opponents and the weather conditions were difficult. It was very, very hot and extremely humid,” said Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi. “We are unbeaten in three years, but we don’t think about that ahead of every game. We just wanted to win today.”
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2022