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Africa Cup of Nations

Nigeria 1-0 Tunisia: Ighalo settles low-key affair for Super Eagles

04:40 EAT 18/07/2019
Odion Ighalo of Nigeria celebrates a goal during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals, 3rd and 4th place match
There was little to get the blood pumping in Wednesday's Afcon third-place playoff, aside the Shanghai Shenhua man creating a bit of history

Perhaps there is a deeper psychology, beyond the obvious, to Nigeria’s excellence in third-place playoff matches at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Never before has a Nigerian team lost this particular fixture at the Afcon. Eight matches, eight wins; that’s more than total final appearances – seven – out of which only three were won. For some reason, when no one can be bothered anymore, Nigeria show up.

One might say, of course, that it is precisely the ability to put on game faces when the pressure is off that means Nigeria has a losing record in finals. Or that, less depressingly, considering teams usually have a degree of rotation for third-place matches, it is indicative of depth.

Whichever diagnosis one arrives at, there was no cure for the numbing ordinariness of the night’s proceedings at the Al Salam Stadium.

The early goal here, the culmination of a fast start by Nigeria, seemed to signal a break from the norm. instead, it set the tone, but not in the right way: rather than thrust and counter-thrust, we got instead both sides poking each other lightly in the ribs, trying to elicit some sort of reaction.

It did not work.

There was surprisingly little rotation, in fact. Both managers have done a fair bit of chopping and changing through the course of the competition, the upshot being that, in a game typically reserved for those who had not featured at all, there were precious few who fit the bill. As such, both sides were quite strong, and the major change came in both goals: Francis Uzoho and Moez Ben Cherifia started their first matches of the Afcon.

As it turns out, the game was not conditioned by them, even though Ben Cherifia tried his best to make a mark; goalkeeping errors have been a thing for Tunisia in the tournament so far, and so the Esperance man must have relished his chance to further the narrative, diverting Jamilu Collins’ low cross against his own defender.

No, this was a game curiously about a player who only played half of it: Odion Ighalo, his sole shot of the first 45 minutes being a toe-poke into an empty net. As it turns out, it took his tally to five goals for the tournament, and extended his lead in the Golden Boot stakes to two.

It is best to look at this forgettable game as simply a Golden Boot vehicle for the Shanghai Shenhua man, whose redemption is now complete. Though doubts continue to persist over his overall quality, he has now equalled Rashidi Yekini’s tally of five, from 1994, for a Nigerian player at an Afcon, while also becoming the first player to reach that tally since Gedo in 2010.

It is a remarkable feat, especially taking into account the fact that Ighalo had not scored at an international tournament for Nigeria before this Cup of Nations. It clearly meant a lot, not just to the player himself, but to Rohr; a further gesture of superiority over the vocal calls for the player’s dismissal following the 2018 World Cup.

Five goals, all scored from within 12 yards. It remains to be seen if his injury, conveniently timed as it was, will signal his exit: stage left. If it does, it would be quite the dramatic way to go for the ultimate no-frills player.