Bleacher Report’s African expert Ed Dove examines the action from Group C, where Nigeria bested Ethiopia to seal Afcon progression.
Despite only managing a draw in their last match against Zambia, the Super Eagles progress as group runners up, along with Burkina Faso—advancing to meet the giants of Cote d’Ivoire in the quarterfinal.
Read on to discover six things we learned from their clash with the Ethiopians.
While the main media focus from this match has concentrated on Nigeria, the Super Eagles win and their progression to the Afcon’s knock out stages. I wish to begin by congratulating the Ethiopian team who will soon depart from South Africa at the bottom of Group C.
Despite this, the Black Lions can hold their heads high.
Critics were quick to write them off before the tournament. The fallen giants of the African game had been 31 years away from Africa’s centrepiece, and few expected anything from a squad low on cosmopolitan experience, and high on domestic based players—many of whom were localised at two of Ethiopia’s top teams.
A brave draw against holders Zambia, despite being reduced to 10 men, won them many admirers. Even though the optimism of that balmy afternoon was replaced by despair as they were beaten 4-0 by Burkina Faso, few will have read too much into that scoreline.
Playing attacking football and not afraid to be creative in the midfield—Ethiopia have won themselves many plaudits in this tournament, so much so that few batted an eyelid as they held continental giants Nigeria for well over an hour in Rustenburg.
I, for one, hope that 2013 marks a permanent end to the Walias’ exile from international competition, and that this talented, underrated collection of players are soon gracing our screens once more.
One of the many subplots that preceded Nigeria’s return to the continental high table surrounded the issue of goalkeepers. Vincent Enyeama was, particularly during the 2010 World Cup when his agility and awareness kept Lionel Messi at bay, consistently considered among the finest "keepers on the continent." Since then, however, his stock has fallen, as his form has dipped, and a move to Europe, to Lille in France, has not worked out.
There was even talk of him being replaced as Nigeria’s number one for this tournament; many fans had lost faith in the stopper after a sloppy performance against Liberia in Monrovia, and the improving Austin Ejide (who wore the armband and excelled in two warm up games) led to suggestions that Enyeama would be dropped.
Ultimately we’ll never know what Stephen Keshi had planned for his goalkeepers, but the injury Ejide sustained before the tournament now seems an age away, with Enyeama having cemented his status as his nation’s number one.
Despite failing to prevent his Zambian counterpart Kennedy Mweene from scoring a penalty in their last match, Enyeama was at his best to keep out Saladin Said in Rustenburg. The stop was all the more crucial considering that at the time, Naija were only leading by one goal.
With scrutiny now leaving him and focusing on the suspicious defence in front of him, Nigerians can rest assured that in Enyeama, they once again have one of the continent’s finest custodians between the sticks.
Three names are consistently featured among lists of those players ready to step up and steal the stage at this year’s African centrepiece. However, while Younes Belhanda is already on his way home, and Christian Atsu has been fitful in his performances for Ghana, it is only really Victor Moses that has lived up to the hype.
Despite not starting against Burkina Faso and being fairly absent against Zambia, the Chelsea man demonstrated his class against Ethiopia. Whilst not featuring prominently throughout the match, it was Moses’ impact in the dying stages that stole the show at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium. His searing pace and direct running clearly terrified the Ethiopians, and he won the two crucial penalties for Naija–also ensuring the Walias ended the contest with only 10 men, and goalkeeper-less.
If this tournament is to truly prove to be a revival of the Super Eagles, the so-called biggest side in Africa, then Moses’ form and abundant qualities, will need to be at their sharpest.
It’s one thing to labour to victory against an Ethiopian side, themselves on the verge of elimination, but it’s another challenge altogether to take on the rampant Elephants of the Cote d’Ivoire in a knockout bout. The Super Eagles will need to improve dramatically to stand a chance against the champions-elect.
I recently considered the opening stages of the Ivorian campaign and concluded that even though they were the only team to preserve a 100 percent record after their opening two fixtures, they hadn’t yet demonstrated the form that has had so many pundits and fans fawning over their talents and qualities. Still, a maximum six points has given the Elephants a platform, and their confidence will be soaring after progress is ensured.
If Nigeria produces a performance as lacklustre as the opening 80 minutes against Ethiopia, then their participation in this year’s tournament will not have long to live.
One of the big questions heading into this tournament surrounded the Super Eagles’ highest-profile talent, Chelsea midfielder, John Obi Mikel. No longer a youngster, Mikel is now in a position where he must assert himself in the national side’s midfield and begin to command games in the way his undoubted talent demands of him.
When examining the potential disappointments of this tournament, I identified the midfielder as one of the Afcon’s potential let downs. Whenever a player slips into the famous dark green of Nigeria, the pressure is heaped on them. But when you are thrust into the heart of the pitch and expected to be both creative genius and defensive rock, the spotlight really is on.
Sadly, Mikel hasn’t been able to grab games by the scruff of the neck thus far in the tournament—with his missed penalty against Zambia threatening to be his lasting legacy. The game against Ethiopia passed him by as well, with the Jos-born player too often opting for the flashy option, instead of supporting his team with the bread-and-butter business of a central midfielder.
With teams entering the business end of the competition, Nigerians will look to Mikel to act upon his vast experience of big fixtures and will count on his ability to combat a stronger calibre of opponent. I fear that the Chelsea man may regret letting this tournament pass him by.
As the complexion of the quarterfinals nears completion, fans can look forward to a tantalising assortment of matches. Many of Africa’s biggest teams have progressed, and with only one more spot to fill, the Afcon can look to an exciting selection of knock-out encounters.
Mali might be lucky to have qualified after a late winner against Niger, defeat to Ghana and a draw against the Democratic Republic of Congo, but after finishing third in the last tournament, their eclectic collection of players may well be hoping of going one better and making the final. South Africa, the tournament’s rejuvenated hosts, stand in their way in what is likely to be one of the more exciting quarterfinals.
Elsewhere, Ghana will tackle the minnows of Cape Verde, whilst Nigeria go head-to-head with the Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso are set to face the winners of tomorrow’s Togo/Tunisia clash.
It’s sure to be a fascinating weekend of African football.