Outfoxed, out-thought, outcoached.
The defeat means Nigeria — who have made more AFCON semifinal appearances than any other country — have failed to make the final four for the first time since 2008, when they were eliminated in the quarterfinal of a 16-team tournament by hosts Ghana.
Shorn of a third of their team, and without their coach, the Carthage Eagles still contrived to put up a fighting performance to peg back the rampaging Nigerians, going toe to toe with the Super Eagles until Youssef Msakni struck in the second half, beating Maduka Okoye from range for the only goal of the game.
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Stunned, the Nigerians tried to respond, and coach Augustine Eguavoen threw on the first of four subs, among them Everton’s Alex Iwobi. But the midfielder lasted just five minutes before he was sent off for a dangerous tackle, compromising Nigeria’s chances of advancement and handing Tunisia the win.
It all came down to preparation and tactics.
Despite their excellent form in the group stages where they won three of three, the Super Eagles always looked vulnerable in the middle, where Joseph Aribo’s license to roam meant that Wilfred Ndidi was usually the lone body shielding the back four.
The set up meant that Eguavoen’s men were vulnerable in transitions, despite their speed and trickery out in the wide areas where Moses Simon and Samuel Chukwueze provided danger. It was a loophole that Tunisia exploited to the max.
Nigeria’s wide players were blunted by a double team, especially on Simon, and Ellyes Skhiri dropping into the defence, nullified Nigeria’s press as the Tunisians tried to overload the middle.
It was clear the north Africans had done their homework.
“We know Nigeria are very strong and very fast in the wings,” assistant coach Jalel Kadri said at the post-match press conference. “Today we came up with tactics to put pressure on then Nigerian wingers because they are very dangerous. And we also know they have difficulties in when they lose the ball.”
In fairness to Eguavoen, he responded adequately, throwing on Iwobi to give Nigeria more central control. But all of that went out the window with the red card.
Nigeria’s issues on the day, however, go beyond coaching.
Distractions off the field had the team entertaining different visitors, even at half-time of a game during the group stage.
A plethora of Nigerian businessmen and even government officials, took turns to visit and call into the players, promising millions of Naira per goal scored, among other potential rewards.
History has shown that promising money for goals has never yielded either the goals, or the results. In 2015, when a state governor promised the Super Eagles $5,000 dollars per goal scored against South Africa, the team were beaten.
What it has been shown to do however, is distract players who should be focused on playing and winning a game of football. And there were way too many of those going into this game.
At the end of the day, however, a football match is won on the field and these Super Eagles fell short on the night. And the failure was both on the field and on the sidelines. The breakdowns that led to the goal started all the way up front, and continued when players backed away rather than close Msakni down.
And on the sidelines, Eguavoen’s adventurous approach did not appear to legislate for a more conservative Plan B or C.
In his previous time as Eagles coach, Eguavoen was criticized for being too conservative. In this spell, his team played high tempo offense which left the backdoor open to exploitation. If Eguavoen was guilty of being too conservative in his earlier spell as Super Eagles coach, this time perhaps he has been let down by being too adventurous. And that, in some ways, changes the dynamic of the conversation that led up to this game.
A win would have strengthened the case for Eguavoen keeping the job on a permanent basis, with an NFF official telling ESPN earlier this week the position would be offered to the former defender.
But Sunday’s loss, and the manner of it, appears to have changed that dynamic with Eguavoen himself telling ESPN he was stepping down.
“I can’t think about that now. I will go back to my job as technical director and let the powers that be make that decision,” he said.
Still, in a response that suggested he still has designs on the job, Eguavoen pointed to the good work his team did during the game, matching and dominating the statistics even with a man down
“We had chances to score even after the red card,” he told ESPN. “But statistics do not win games, goals do. If there is one thing I would improve in this team, it is that we should score more goals.”
In the end, they paid the price. And it came on the day when Nigerians remembered the birthday of late former coach Stephen Keshi, who led Nigeria to their last title.
NFF President Amaju Pinnick says the team is now looking ahead to the World Cup qualifiers in March.
“We are proud of the efforts of the players. They gave their all and tried very hard to win even when they had numerical disadvantage. It was just not our day,” he said.
“Losing at this stage is painful but we take solace in the great spirit with which the team approached its four matches in Cameroon, out of which it won three.
“The focus and attention will now shift to the FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff against Ghana in March. We want to assure Nigerians that we will prepare even harder for those two matches to get the job done.”