BY MUYIWA AKINTUNDE
The Super Eagles appear set to repeat 2013. In the build-up to that year’s AFCON finals in South Africa, Nigerian fans had little confidence in their team, as it is in 2019.
Flashback to 2013: The Eagles missed qualifications for two episodes immediately preceding that year, while the team had experienced several overhauls prior to the tournament in the Rainbow nation.
There were also doubts in an indigenous manager as internal and external stakeholders of Nigerian football mounted pressure on Stephen Keshi and his squad.
In South Africa, Nigeria started in a not-so-assuring manner with two back-to-back draws in their group matches, conceding equaliser to Burkina Faso and Zambia in the closing moments of those seemingly easy fixtures.
Even when they triumphed over Ethiopia in the final group game, the criticism never ebb particularly as the goals came in the last 10 minutes of the encounter.
Nigeria again managed to scrape through to the quarterfinal beating the Ivorien Elephants 2-1 and then played their easiest match in the last four by putting four goals past Mali in 60 minutes with a consolation goal for the other Eagles in the 75th minute.
And so it was that the Nigerian Eagles that gave little hope at the beginning landed in the final against their first opponents in that tournament, Burkina Faso.
Nigerians recalled Algeria 1990 when their team met the same team in both their opening fixture and in the showpiece match. Then the hosts triumphed on both occasions – 5-1 in the group match and 1-0 to lift the cup.
But Keshi’s Eagles kept their nerves against the Burkinabe as Sunday Mba banged in the lone goal in the 40th minute.
Back to Egypt 2019: Nigerian fans were not impressed as their team struggled to beat debutante Burundi and Guinea by just a solitary goal in their first two games, only to be humiliated by another new comers Madagascar in the closing match of the first round.
They then surrendered an early lead to go behind their eternal rivals Cameroon in the Round of 16. But two goals within three minutes restored their lead and eventually saw to the crash of the defending champions.
South Africa were meant to be easy opposition in the quarterfinal. But the Bafana Bafana arrived that match on the heels of a heroic performance. They had just played arguably their best match ever – the lone goal defeat of hosts Egypt in the second round.
Nigeria again went ahead and, this time, kept the advantage into the second half. But they were to allow the South African level up before a closing stage rally delivered the winning strike through centre back William Troost-Ekong, his first competitive international goal.
Except in 2008 when they lost at the quarterfinal 1-2 to hosts Ghana, Nigeria have been among the top four in all AFCON editions they featured in since 1984. Champions in 1994 and 2013, runners-up in 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2000, they picked bronze medals in 1992 and in three straight editions between 2002 and 2006 as well as in 2010.
On their part, Algeria’s AFCON record is not so impressive. Before winning the competition on home soil in 1990, the Desert Foxes had lost in the final to Nigeria in Lagos in 1980, placed third in 1984 and 1988 and fourth at Libya 1982.
Post-1990, Algeria’s best performance was fourth in Angola 2010. They either exited in the quarterfinals or crashed out at the first round in the other nine editions they qualified for.
Egypt 2019 draw placed Algeria in Group C alongside Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania. But they beat all comers, including the topmost rated Senegal to ease into the knockout stages without conceding a goal while scoring six.
Against Guinea in the Round of 16, Algeria kept their defence well protected as they scored three unreplied goals to set up quarterfinal final clash versus Côte d’Ivoire.
Aston Villa’s striker Jonathan Kodjia would eventually breach Algeria’s defence in the 62nd minute to bring the Ivorien Elephants level. The deadlock endured to the end and also in extra time. But Algeria triumphed via penalties.
Facing a mean defence requires being clinical in front of goal, which is the task before the Super Eagles as they file out at the Cairo International Stadium tonight.
Nigeria contributed to Algeria’s failure to feature in Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup. The Super Eagles won at home 3-1 and drew the second leg 1-1. But having been found guilty of fielding suspended defender Abdullahi Shehu in that match in Constantine, Algeria were awarded the fixture 3-0.
In the last 29 years, Algeria have not beaten Nigeria on the field of play.
In AFCON history, this will be the ninth time both sides will face themselves, making it the most head-to-head clash in the competition. The statistics read 3-2-3 representing wins, draws and losses.
At this stage of the tournament however, there has been only one fixture involving both teams. And that was in Morocco 1988 when Rachid Maâtar’s goal in the 86th minute cancelled an own goal by Abdelrazak Belgharbi (36th minute) to drag the first semi-final into extra time and penalty shootouts which Nigeria won 9-8. But Cameroon, for the second time, stopped Nigeria from lifting the trophy as they won the final 1-0.
In the earlier match of the day, Senegal will strive to reach the final for the second time, while Tunisia will like to play the showpiece match for the fourth time.
Both sides were runners-up in their respective groups in the ongoing AFCON, Tunisia not even winning any match to reach the knockout rounds as the Eagles of Carthage shared honours with Angola (1-1), Mali (1-1) and Mauritania (0-0) to queue behind Mali in Group E.
Then they allowed the Black Stars of Ghana to cancel their 73rd minute advantage in the first minute of added time in the Round of 16. But they held on in extra time to eventually pull through to the last eight via 5-4 penalties.
Against the Madagascar, the revelation of Egypt 2019 in the quarterfinal, Tunisia could not break the debutante until the 52nd minute but won in the end 3-0 to set up the semifinal clash against Seneral.
The Teranga Lions went into AFCON 2019 as one of the favourites to lift the title being in fine form and as Africa’s No 1 team going by FIFA ranking. But they laboured to beat Tanzania 2-0 in their opening match and then lost 0-1 to Algeria despite their inspirational striker Sadio Mané returning from a match ban. The Lions stepped up to wallop Kenya 3-0 and qualify for the Round of 16 as runners-up behind Algeria.
Senegal again weren’t exciting as Uganda fell 0-1 in the second round, while they struck just once to stop the historic run of Benin Republic in the quarterfinal.
Runners-up in 1965 and 1996 and bronze medalists in 1962 with two fourth placed finish in 1978 and 2000, this is the first time Tunisia will be among the last four since lifting the trophy at home in 2004.
Senegal, on their part, lost their only best opportunity so far to win the title in 2002 when they lost the final on penalties to Cameroon in Bamako. Their previous venture into the semifinals in 1965, 1990 and 2006 ended in defeat in those matches as well in the third placed fixtures that followed.
Tunisia have beaten Senegal once in AFCON finals, the same with the Lions, while both sides have recorded three draws.
- Senegal v Tunisia (5pm)
- Algeria v Nigeria (8pm)