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AFCON 2021: A tough exit for Nigeria's Super Eagles

January 23, 2022

The Super Eagles won all their three group games but came unstuck against Tunisia's Carthage Eagles in Garoua. What promised to be a long campaign was brought to an abrupt end at the first knockout stage.

Youssef Msakni of Tunisia celebrates goal with teammates during the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Afcon Finals Last 16 match between Nigeria and Tunisia
Nigeria were left wondering as Tunisia celebrated their winImage: BackpagePix/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Nigeria went into the knockout game against Tunisia with the best record of the group stage, nine points and six goals and just one conceded. Many of their fanswere predicting a tasty final with hosts Cameroon. It would have been a glorious end to the Africa Cup of Nations. All that dream is gone now.

The Tunisians were not that sleek. They managed to scrape through the group stages with three points, they lost to debutants Gambia and finished as one of the best four third-placed teams.

But the form book was thrown out the window when the two giants of African football met in Garoua on Sunday night. Both sides matched up equally in the first half with little to separate them. There were hardly any chances created in a cagey, well-contested game.

However, the Carthage Eagles were the first to kick into gear when the second half started as Youssef Msakni scored via a low shot with a slight curve from outside the box that beat goalkeeper Maduka Okoye. The Tunisians held on even as Nigeria threw bodies forward.

Nigeria's coach Austin Eguavoen sent in Alex Iwobi in place of Kelechi Iheanacho to shake up the attack. But the Everton man would be sent off a few minutes later for a dangerous tackle. Nigeria had to find something special, but they just could not get the goal they needed, as the defensive solidity of the Tunisians showed.

'A gift for our people'

Tunisia went into the game without seven players, who tested positive for COVID-19. Their head coach, Mondher Kebaier, was also missing, leaving his assistant Jalal Qaderi to manage the team. Perhaps it was this crisis that helped the Tunisians come together, stay focused and resolved to fight till the end.

Tunisian players celebrate after scoring a goal
Tunisia won despite all the health issues they facedImage: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Goalscorer Msakni, a veteran of several AFCON campaigns, only started due to the shortage of players. But his experience came in handy on the night.

"The victory was a gift for our people," Msakni said after accepting the man-of-the-match award after the game. It was indeed a big win for the Tunisian people, who have been waiting since 2004 for a second African title. And they will hope that this win propels them further ahead in the tournament.

Nigeria take eyes off the ball

Nigeria went into the tournament with a lot of issues to resolve. They sacked their long-term manager, Gernot Rohr, a month to kick off. Eguavoen, a former player and winner of the tournament in 1994, was brought in as interim coach. He knew the team due to his role as the Technical Director of the Nigeria Football Federation, where he oversaw the development of football in the country.

Nigeria's forward Samuel Chukwueze (2L) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal during the Group D Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 football match between Nigeria and Sudan
Nigeria went into the game as the best team of the group stagesImage: Daniel Beloumou Olomo/AFP

His first three matches in charge were the best start Nigeria have had at the AFCON since he took them to the tournament in 2006, when they won their three group games and reached the semi-finals only to end up finishing third. His hopes of going one better this term was sadly dashed as the Super Eagles looked slower than usual.

Maybe it was the fact that he seemed to have been found out as he used the same starting line-up and tactics he deployed in his first two games. There was no surprise factor in his deployment. And so, the Tunisians were able to keep his team at bay. Master dribbler Moses Simon found two or three defenders in front of him every time he tried to carry the ball inside the box. They were left to fire shots from outside that went wayward as they tried to break the Tunisian resolve.

"We tried to come back, we chased the game and then we got a red card. It is very difficult when you play against a tactical side like Tunisia," Eguavoen said after the game.

Nigeria will return home with their heads bowed after giving their fans a lot of hope in the last week. With Jose Peseiro, the substantive coach, waiting to take over the team, they will hope they are mentally ready when they play their final World Cup play-offs against rivals Ghana in March.

Burkina Faso pick quarterfinal ticket against Gabon

Burkina Faso's Stallions defeated Gabon's Panthers via penalties to set up a quarterfinal game against Tunisia. The Stallions scored via Bertrand Traore, minutes after the captain had missed a penalty kick in the first half.

Burkina Faso's players celebrate after winning the Africa Cup of Nations round of 16 football match between Burkina Faso and Gabon
Burkina Faso celebrate their penalty shoot-out victoryImage: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

But the Gabonese fought back, despite having a player sent off in the second half and scored a late equalizer via an Adama Guira own-goal in injury time.

They made the best use of the penalty shoot-out as they held on to win 7-6, sending their traveling fans into rapturous joy at the end of the evening.

Edited by: Farah Bahgat