Ivory Coast 1-2 Nigeria: Africa's Top-Billing Produces Tactical Stalemate
The Africa Cup of Nations' premier quarterfinal tie featured two of the three true heavyweights in this competition.
Ivory Coast and Nigeria—two teams packed full of talent—served up a classic tactical cancellation by fielding very similar 4-2-3-1 formations and thus nullifying the danger areas of the pitch.
Here's a little look at how both sides shaped up.
In retrospect, it's no surprise that this game failed to serve up a thrilling cocktail of football. We've seen this problem in domestic football countless times, and the European Championships during the summer saw the majority sides settle for this "safety first" option.
A lack of tactical development has seen numerous sides field a straight 4-4-2 this winter, so some understanding is a welcome change. It was just unfortunate that both Nigeria's and Ivory Coast's best players were blunted during the 90 minutes.
Speaking generally, a pair of holding pivots in the midfield suffocates any space.
When Netherlands met Germany in Euro 2012, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger drove Wesley Sneijder deeper and wider than he wanted to be, while Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong did the same to Mesut Ozil.
The result is a lack of flow to a game, no certifiable dominance in possession and a lot of toothless looking attacks.
We saw all of this on Sunday, too.
Yaya Toure has been such a threat playing in an advanced role behind Didier Drogba during this tournament, but that's largely against 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 formations. The space he found behind the midfield against Togo, Tunisia and Algeria simply wasn't there against the Super Eagles.
Nigeria's holding midfield closed the space in front of their defensive line, while Ivory Coast's did the same to stop Onazi from playing.
Moment of brilliance
Really, this forces the wide players to come into play. That should have played into the hands of the Elephants due to the great form of Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, but they failed to have any impact on the game whatsoever.
Instead it was Victor Moses—playing from the left flank and cutting inward—that had the most joy, and his stinging shot from 25 yards early in the first half had Boubacar Barry fretting.
With the flanks won by no one and the midfield not dominated either, this wasn't a pretty game. What it came down to, then, was a moment of brilliance to decide proceedings.
It was Emmanuel Emenike's super strike from a free kick routine that opened the scoring, then Cheick Tiote's header that leveled it. Two goals from set pieces—no surprises considering the tactical stalemate.
The winner, from Sunday Mba, was the game-breaking moment that belies a team's setup though.
You can close gaps, shut down space and force opponents into certain areas all you want, but you can't legislate for one man taking the ball, dancing past three and scooping one into the net.
True to form for most hyped-up encounters, this was a tactical non-event.
Six players in central midfield made for almost no space to play in throughout the opposition's third and poor execution coupled with a baffling lack of understanding of the offside rule stumped any quick, incisive attacks.
It was as slow moving and laborious as they come, and the biggest highlight was the lack of bizarre refereeing decisions.
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