Nigeria, perhaps by virtue of their favorites tag, or superior talent, wrapped up qualification to the next round of the 2019 African Cup of Nations tournament with a labored yet disciplined 1-0 victory over Guinea on Wednesday evening. While the win reeked of perfect execution in context on the part of Gernot Rohr's side, it threw up thrall themes for the later stages.
It is instructive that it was the Super Eagles second solitary goal victory in succession in this tourney, relying on the super-sub heroics of Odion Igahalo against Burundi in the first game and then, the sheer precision of Kenneth Omeruo versus Guinea; what was inevitably glaring was the manner in which they dragged through these slug-fests laced with occasional flashes of quality.
It was succinctly expected (before the tournament) that Nigeria will make light work of Group D. First opponents, Oliver Niyungeko's side was always expected to be a tad more pliable when squaring up against the three-time champions, as debutants usually seem to be and alongside Madagascar were largely regarded as dark-horses. The odds were equally stacked against Guinea, and rightly so.
While the outcome so far has shaped up to be anything but a gristle-like crack-nut, Nigeria, in all the splendor and prestige has not had a walk in the park notwithstanding.
Saddening it was, however when the news of sickness bouts and fitness issues in the team's camp first filtered in through the local media even before they kicked their first ball, all threatening to derail the ambitions of the players and it is particularly remarkable that Rohr has tried to handle such mishaps quite applaudable.
The Franco-German is well-known for his dogmatic disposition towards tinkering, and while his trusted war-horses had benefited from such miserly approach for much of his reign, fate has interestingly played its part this time around. Daniel Akpeyi looks to have wrested the starting spot between the sticks from his young rival, Francis Uzoho, first-choice center-back pairing of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong has been jettisoned. Full-backs Jamilu Collins and Shehu Abdullahi are ailing. Also, team's skipper Mikel John Obi, on the wrong side of age seem to have no longer the mobility and explosiveness required for such arduous competition, and of course has fallen out of favor – it is surprising to note that every area of the team has been given a shake-up in just two games.
The changes were yet again rung versus Guinea (as many as five) and though the tempo remained the same, there seemed to be little clarity on how the Super Eagles would eventually break the staunch resistance of their opponents, especially as Paul Put's wards lay deep and only ventured out of their half with the ball to foot. Nigeria could have thrown a spanner in the works for themselves with their wastefulness in possession, with Alex Iwobi and Ighalo arguably the most culprits. Caches of brilliance and trickery here and there as the team pressed and probed, and yet Guinea sat strong.
But all the toiling were to be swiftly thrown out of the window when center-back Omeruo, one of the beneficiaries of the fate-enforced reshuffles made himself available to beat Ibrahim Kone with that textbook header from Moses Simon's corner kick. This group seems to be following the dictates of a tactical script: bide your time, batten down the hatches possibly, harry and hassle your opposition into submission and then pick your best and safest opportunity to strike – like a cobra would on prey it has stalked for so long. By the end, Rohr's know-how has shone through, typically outfoxing his opposite number and his reward is an early slot in the round of sixteen.
Probably, it is a pragmatic concept which he would hope serves his team well throughout their adventure in Egypt, with better-drilled opponents and tougher games sure to come in the competition's knockout stages. Granted, Guinea is not Egypt or Cameroon, but the Super Eagles tend to grind out results built on sheer compactness and an unshaken paradigm of efficiency, in a manner that is sure to leave most of the favorites even wary.
Madagascar, buoyed by their historic victory over Burundi which places them in favourable stead of advancing will be fired up to create one of the biggest AFCON upsets of all time at the very least on Sunday but as to how they will come through the test of facing the ultra-conservative yet clinical Eagles unscathed is logic-defining and thus, story for another day.
From Lagos to Kano, Anambra and Delta to the streets in Imo, millions of passionate Nigerian fans will not, for anything, exchange the burning desire to see the glamorous trophy arrive the country capital when the dust finally settles on what is looking to be one of the most exciting editions the continent has ever seen.
And the early signs are looking promising, nonetheless.