As a game, Wednesday’s meeting between Nigeria and Guinea was important without being memorable.
For the Super Eagles, the slim 1-0 victory qualified them for the Africa Cup of Nations Round of 16, the first team in the competition to do so. It also stretched to six a winning Afcon run going back six years and three editions ago. Back then, it seemed ludicrous, as Nigeria held the trophy aloft, that it would be their last appearance for over half a decade.
So, while it certainly was full of implication, the actual game itself was sorely lacking in proper quality. There was some excitement, most notably in the opening 25 minutes when both teams huffed and puffed at each other but their rearguards stood firm.
First frenetic, the game settled into a drab spectacle that occasionally threatened to spark into life. It never did, however, and some of that was to do with the defences on display.
It may be cliche to speak on the defence in the wake of a low-scoring match, but here they were on top: Nancy’s Ernest Seka absolutely dominated Odion Ighalo, the slayer of Burundi reduced to scraps and running up against a brick wall. When the Shanghai Shenhua frontman did manage to break free, he then elected to shoot from a tight angle rather than play a square pass to an unmarked Ahmed Musa, perhaps addled by his long captivity.
Moses Simon began brightly, but by the end even he was an auxiliary winger, first by the coercion of Issiaga Sylla, and then by the persuasion of Gernot Rohr to secure the result. Musa endured an anonymous afternoon, although that was less to do with Mikael Dyrestam’s efforts than his own one-dimensional movement all game long.
At the other end, the Nigerian defenders had the upper hand as well.
In a narrow full-back role, Chidozie Awaziem made light work of Francois Kamano’s attempts to get by him and was always perfectly positioned, never needing to overly exert himself. Ola Aina did no moonlighting as a silky creator this time, but is such a thoroughbred athlete that Ibrahima Traore spent large swathes of the game playing inside his own half.
Sory Kaba, up against an unapologetic defence, wilted in the afternoon sun; Kenneth Omeruo engaged, while Leon Balogun picked off what came through the cracks.
The eternal Chelsea loanee was the game’s best player, almost unbeatable on the ground or in the air, capable in all the ways that he has not always been.
It is remarkable to think that, having been considered a third wheel leading up to the Afcon, he has now played every minute of both matches. With Balogun back fully fit, it was instead William Troost-Ekong who made way; the first time the Udinese man has missed a competitive game for Nigeria (unrelated to injury) since March 2016.
It was a decision that lent itself to the most assured defensive performance in recent times, and perhaps for the first time offered a full glimpse of what Gernot Rohr’s vision is: efficiency.
That too may be cliche when talking about a German, and perhaps efficiency may not enough to go all the way.
However, it certainly has proven enough so far, and with Rohr it really is all about taking it one game at a time.
Now, there’s another cliche for you...