That was the summation of the commentator as the Super Eagles of Nigeria ended their Group phase campaign at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with a 2-0 loss to debutantes, Madagascar. It was the apt caption for a captivating game that was always going to be a banana peel affair for the Nigeria team because…
The Barea, as the Malagasy national team is called, have been quite impressive for a team making a first appearance. They’d scored more goals than the Super Eagles before the two teams met, had held a strong Guinea side, and had showed impeccable character in the two games they’d played at the tournament. In short, the Barea have not shown the nerves expected of debutantes, and can even been said to be plucky in approach.
They also possess something the Super Eagles lack: they know how to use dead balls. This has been a glaring weakness of the Super Eagles for a long time. Not so for the Malagasy; they have managed to find the net from a dead ball situation in every one of their games at this tournament. They opened their goals account at the Nations Cup from a corner kick against Guinea, and ended the group phase by getting a second off a deflection from a free kick against Nigeria. In-between, they scored their only goal from a direct free kick against Burundi.
Apart from these, they showed good organization and game management against the Super Eagles. If we consider Burundi ‘inferior’ to both Nigeria and Guinea, and so wave away Madagascar’s victory over them; and if we consider that the Malagasy took the lead over Guinea, but failed to hold onto it, they did a stellar job against the Eagles. They got lucky and pounced to get ahead, but from that point, they didn’t put a foot wrong. The Barea were immaculate in possession with their no-hurry, pass-first football, while the Eagles tried to do too much They also defended in numbers and provided the cover of the second and sometimes third man when it looks like the Eagles would break through.
Meanwhile, the Eagles team that had won two games and kept two clean sheets looked ragged, despite having more possession. The disjointed transition from midfield to attack that had been visible but inconsequential because of the victories became glaring as Madagascar snuffed out everything the troika of Ahmed Musa, Mikel Obi and Samuel Kalu threw at them; and found the measure of Odion Ighalo. And the longer the game went on, the more the short-comings of the Eagles showed.
The big question now is: should Gernot Rohr have tweaked the team playing style? This question became relevant because the team set-up that the Eagles started with was the same with which they concluded the game. The coach made three changes, but all the substitutes were mirror-images of the players they replaced: Wilfred Ndidi for John Ogu, Simon Kalu for Moses Simon and Alex Iwobi for Mikel Obi (at least they are playing the same position in this tournament). Maybe a second striker, to change the formation from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 would have helped. Maybe.
But after all said and done, there is good and bad news in the loss. The Eagles may have only lost a game; but they have progressed from the group to the knock-out rounds. The other ‘good news’ is that the defeat may have ‘cured’ the Eagles of any arrogance they may have come into the tournament with, and turned them into warriors. But we wait to see. The ‘bad news’ is that they are now likely to meet Ghana, a draw many on both sides of the border probably don’t want now. The other bad news is that Madagascar may just have just shown the Eagles for what they are: a bunch of talented players with no thread that makes them a team