Has the excitement from Tuesday lessened yet? Nigeria went into their opening Africa Cup of Nations clash with Egypt with supporters unsure of what to expect.
Despite the gap in quality not being particularly wide, the Super Eagles’ thorny preparation meant a side that were unbeaten in 16 successive games in the competition’s group phase were backed to win, or at least not lose.
Augustine Eguavoen had only taken over the team in December, a month to the finals, after the jettisoning of Gernot Rohr at the backend of 2021.
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It would have been easy to be passive against the North Africans, hunker down and aim for a bore draw. It would have been easy to focus exclusively on limiting Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s superstar and, arguably, the best player in the world right now.
Since his Afcon debut in 2017, the Liverpool attacker’s four goals and two assists account for 60 percent of the Pharaohs’ tournament goals.
Again, shackling the former Chelsea wide attacker in Garoua was key to the West Africans’ prospects, but the fact they also showed guts in possession was admirable.
It was far from perfect, in fairness, with the final ball occasionally erratic, a player shooting at goal when a pass was the sensible option or the wrong choice of a pass being made at times.
Be that as it may, any sort of improvement was going to be welcome with open arms.
The upshot of the victory over the North Africans has brought about increased expectations. A few observers who did not consider the Super Eagles to be Afcon contenders are looking the way of the three-time African champions again.
In a sense, this is in part due to the underperformance of other top sides at the competition so far, except the hosts Cameroon whose quality shone as they roared back from 1-0 down to secure a 4-1 victory over Ethiopia on Thursday.
Nigeria’s all-round showing in that 1-0 win has caught the eye and how they handle the upcoming days will be under the microscope.
After Tuesday’s win over Egypt, Eguavoen’s troops need to show something different against Sudan to get even more sceptical supporters onside.
The Super Eagles were not favourites against the North Africans, giving them the room to take observers by surprise. Against the Falcons of Jediane, the onus is on Nigeria to thrive owing to their favourites tag and superior class on paper.
Will they show they can play with dominance and overwhelm a team 89 places below them in the Fifa men’s ranking? Will they play on the front foot and show a different side of themselves to suggest they can still flourish when the pressure is cranked up a notch?
Sudan will be in somewhat high spirits, too, having secured their first Afcon clean sheet since beating Ghana in the 1970 final.
Of course, the stalemate means only one of their 14 games at the finals have been victories, but they will regard the goalless game with Guinea-Bissau as a building block for what it is to come up against Eguavoen’s men.
They had of Ali Abu Eshrein to thank for the clean sheet on Tuesday, with the 32-year-old’s penalty stop correcting his initial give-away after bringing down Steve Ambri.
Another big performance will be opportune for the 1970 champions against a Super Eagles side looking to avoid coming unstuck against the underdogs.
“We know what has happened before now and that is what we are trying to protect against and the boys know this because any slip is not going to be good,” Eguavoen told GOAL on Friday. “Going by experience, this will be a serious guide. We are not losing guard on that.”
Having silenced observers who reckoned the Super Eagles did not have a prayer against Egypt, the three-time champions now aim to show what they can do when they have the obligation to control proceedings, on Saturday.
A convincing performance and result will prove their multidimensionality, and that will undoubtedly be a good thing for a side chasing its fourth African title.