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Afcon 2021: Tunisia are good, Nigeria must be wary of their biggest test yet

22:48 EAT 22/01/2022
Super Eagles, Nigeria
The Eagles of Carthage have struggled for results, but they pose the greatest threat of any side Augustine Eguavoen’s team have faced hitherto

It will not be out of place to suggest Nigerians covered their eyes in horror after Ablie Jallow’s powerful drive in second-half stoppage time saw The Gambia defeat Tunisia on Thursday.

Ending top of Group D meant the Super Eagles were likely to face the third-placed side in Group F, who many observers expected to be the West African nation.

Despite the North African team’s coronavirus absences, Mondher Kebaier’s side dominated that encounter in the main and might feel they deserved to have gone ahead before that late, late Jallow sucker punch.

Africa’s fourth-highest ranked team went into the finals expecting victories over debutants Mauritania and the Gambia. However, they could claim only three points from an available six, beating the Mauritanians 4-0 in their second group game.

The Eagles’ of Carthage probably expected a top-two finish when the draws were made, but the deluge of positive coronavirus tests meant they had to make do with third spot.

Despite the absences, their situation could have been oh-so different and third spot is far from a reflection of the North Africans’ quality and threat.

Wahbi Khazri missed a penalty to equalise in their tournament opener against Mali and Seifeddine Jaziri failed to beat Gambia’s Baboucarr Gaye from 12 yards just before half-time in Thursday’s encounter.

In a different world, Tunisia advance from Group F with seven points, enough to end top of that section. However, the reality pits the 2004 champions with high-flying Nigeria, who remain the only side in the competition with a 100 percent record.

Augustine Eguavoen’s troops made the most of being unfancied to flourish under little pre-tournament pressure, claiming deserved wins over Egypt, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.

Particularly commendable was the team demonstrating their varying dimensions in claiming those results. They ceded possession to the Pharaohs in that opening game but played on the front foot in the following pair of games.

So far, they have answered nearly every question before every game — respecting Egypt but not fearing them, showing they could dominate as favourites against Sudan and staying competitive against Guinea-Bissau regardless of a raft of changes — but Sunday night represents a different test entirely.

At the time of writing, the North African side still look to be without a plethora of their squad for the Round of 16 clash, including superstar Khazri who also missed that 1-0 defeat by The Gambia.

The Saint-Etienne star is undoubtedly the Eagles’ go-to player, typified by his three goal involvements, but the former Sunderland player is likely to miss Sunday’s meeting due to Covid-19.

Indeed, the 30-year-old’s absence will be huge, with his playmaking and goalscoring to be missed. Khazri has fashioned two clear-cut chances — no player at Afcon 2021 has higher — while he looks to get stuck in where necessary.

Only Vincent Aboubakar has more goals plus assists than the Tunisia attacker, who, to date, is the only player from the 2004 winners to register multiple goal involvements at the finals.

His expected absence will be a blow, as is their manager’s Kebaier, who has now also contracted Covid-19 along with a few members of staff.

Admittedly, Nigeria look to be favourites for their Round of 16 if the encounter comes too soon for the absences. Be that as it may, Eguavoen is not expecting an easy test regardless of the North African side’s issues.

“It’s going to be a very different game. Tunisia are a technically good team and they are fast as well,” the Super Eagles boss told NFF media. “We will find a way to counter them and see how we will come on top at the end of the game.

“We will continue to work hard as we have always done, same approach, same determination but tactics might differ a little bit.”

Despite the players missing, Tunisia are more integrated than an Egypt side reliant on Mohamed Salah and their technical quality outdoes Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.

It will not be a walkover against one of the well-coached sides in the competition. Nigeria must be wary.