By Solace Chukwu
More than most, Nigerians know that nothing is ever promised. You pay for your moments of euphoria, of contentment in exacting currency, with fear and trembling. In 2013, Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations most improbably, and its citizens have been paying for that unexpected pleasure ever since.
The interest rate has been ridiculously high too, this fact best captured in a hard-fought 2-0 victory in Pointe-Noire. As if the game in itself, which featured two penalties and numerous other shouts, improbable misses and blood (literally) was not nerve-jangling enough, the home crowd went haywire after Aaron Samuel curled in the second from the edge of the box.
It was a disappointing display of lack of sportsmanship, especially considering that the Red Devils came away from Calabar with a 3-2 win in September. Then, their resolve and skills were roundly applauded by the home crowd; apparently a good turn does not always guarantee another in return.
Not that their disappointment was hard to understand though. Through the first half, Congo were much the better side, and were guilty of wasting a number of fine chances. The lanky Fode Dore was at the heart of much of their better passages of play, but let his team down with poor finishing on two notable occasions.
The first involved a quick one-two on the edge of the box, but the CFR Cluj man dragged the effort wide after getting behind a square Nigerian defence. It was eerily similar to Congo’s second goal in September, only that time it was Almeria man Thievy Bifouma finishing off the move rather than playing the wall pass.
Bifouma was the hero in Calabar on Matchday one, but turned villain here, spurning a golden chance to level from the spot with the score at 1-0. He chose the same direction, Vincent Enyeama in goal went the same direction as Austin Ejide did in the first leg, but this time the Lille man got to it and saved comfortably.
A goal then would have really set the cat among the pigeons; only minutes prior returnee Ikechukwu Uche had dispatched a penalty into the bottom corner to the keeper’s right. Instead, the miss saw the home side’s heads drop noticeably, it was the turning point of the game.
The African champions bided their time and struck the killer blow late on through substitute Samuel. The China-based striker is fast honing a knack for scoring important goals: this one changed the dynamic of the group, edging Nigeria ahead on goals scored in matches between both teams. It was a rare piece of composure in a game that had seen the Super Eagles flustered and harassed, especially in the first period.
Stephen Keshi’s men struggled to build any kind of momentum whatsoever in that first half, failing to get their distances right either in the attacking or defensive phases. They pressed in a 4-1-4-1, but left far too much space between Hope Akpan and the two other midfielders in front: John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi. When attacking, the midfield dropped too deep to link up with the forwards and the full-backs offered very little going forward as outlets.
Mikel | A Valuable Contribution
Congo kept their discipline very well, marking 2v2 in midfield and dropping Bifouma onto Akpan. Azubuike Egwuekwe, in for the injured Kenneth Omeruo, was left free to carry the ball out of defence. Not exactly Franz Beckenbauer, even on a good day, the Warri Wolves man was poor with the ball at his feet and consistently mishit his passes into the forwards.
(Un)fortunately, it was the injury to Akpan early in the second half that swung the game in Nigeria’s favour. Sone Aluko came on and went behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1; Congo could no longer mark tightly without leaving space between the lines and Mikel found space thanks to the Hull City forward’s movement.
The move for the opener captured this perfectly: Aluko drew out Prince Oniangue, Mikel advanced into the space and slipped Emmanuel Emenike in, and Massa clattered into him to give away the penalty.
Keshi’s bravery with subs paid off handsomely, for this he deserves plaudits. The Big Boss charged his team to play football the ‘African Way’ leading up to this, and in that sense they certainly delivered; there is no more indubitable marker of a “Nigerian” team than doing what is necessary, even in the face of staggering odds.
For the first time since the 13th minute of the Calamity in Calabar, Nigeria has its destiny in its hands. On Wednesday, already qualified group winners South Africa come calling with little to play for following their victory over Sudan in Durban. The situation is uncomplicated: beat South Africa in Uyo (a feat no one else has managed so far in qualifying), and the African champions march on to Equatorial Guinea 2015. Any less cedes the initiative to Congo, who play in Sudan at the same time.
Of course, ‘uncomplicated’ never means ‘easy’, especially when it’s the Nigerian national team involved.