Nigeria's show of character and Ighalo's goals secure AFCON progress
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- Three thoughts on Nigeria's 3-2 win against Cameroon in the Africa Cup of Nations last 16.
1. Ighalo leads Nigeria's show of character
As two-goal Odion Ighalo walked off the pitch after being substituted, he took a moment to hit one fist against his palm, indicating to his Nigeria teammates that they must continue to fight. He had done the same thing just before kickoff and again when the Super Eagles went 2-1 down. It was a sign of how far the forward has come and the leadership he brings.
Tapping into reserves of character is something past Nigeria teams have done, but the current group had yet to come back from adversity under Gernot Rohr. That changed on a thrilling Saturday night in Alexandria, when Ighalo scored twice before Alex Iwobi added the winner to see off Cameroon and seal a place in the quarterfinal, where they will face South Africa.
Six days after a shock defeat against Madagascar cost his side top spot in Group B, Rohr restored his regular starters to the line-up and it appeared the instruction was to press high early. Nigeria began with energy, pushing Cameroon back into their half and forcing early errors. After 19 minutes, a free kick led to pandemonium in the Cameroon penalty area and Ighalo pounced.
In the five minutes before half-time, though, two easy goals were gifted to the holders, which meant a gut check was required by the men in green and white. They showed the character required after the break, first withstanding multiple attacks and then, when Ighalo took a chested Ahmed Musa ball in stride and stroked home from close range, drawing level.
Three minutes later, the same combination led to Iwobi slotting under Andre Onana. The remainder of the game brought more examinations, but Nigeria stood resolute, repelling waves of Cameroon pressure to claim victory.
It was a personal triumph for Ighalo, who scored seven times in qualifying, but has since taken plenty of flak from fans, not least for his role in the Madagascar defeat. There were calls for Victor Osimhen to start, but Rohr did not waver from his belief in the abilities of the forward who turned 30 just last week.
And on one of the biggest nights of his career, Ighalo showed why. After an early miss attracted the critics' ire again, he showed a poacher's instinct with both of his goals, first when he reacted quickly to stab past Onana and then, on his second, when he stayed composed to volley home despite Cameroon's claims of offside.
"He is a great striker and I trust him because he scores goals and today, he showed us again what he can do for the team. I like him for his professionalism," Rohr told ESPN after a game in which his faith was rewarded.
2. Defensive errors persist but Etebo stars again
That the game came close to being lost, despite the fact that the Nigerians controlled it for long periods, was due to a fragility in defence that meant fans could not relax.
Both Cameroon goals were avoidable, but panicked and uncertain play meant pressure was invited from early in the game. Just before the holders equalised through Stephane Bahoken, Kenneth Omeruo mishit a high ball that led to chaos in the penalty area.
Ola Aina looked unsure as he tried to come to grips with the pace and trickery of Christian Bassogog and Clinton Njie, the latter of whom got the better of Aina to score Cameroon's second. There were more hearts-in-mouth moments after Iwobi made it 3-2 -- William Troost-Ekong's hurried clearances did little to bring calm -- and Cameroon will kick themselves for not making more of their chances.
"Like I have said before, we are human beings and we make mistakes," Leon Balogun told ESPN. "Nobody goes out there to play and make mistakes, but we keep doing our best and we work hard to make sure that those mistakes do not happen again."
One player who did much to ensure Nigeria closed the game out was Oghenekaro Etebo. There was concern when the midfielder took a knock midway through the first half, but he had his hip strapped and returned to continue the good work that has made him Nigeria's most influential player -- by some distance -- at this African Cup of Nations.
Ighalo's goals might have won him man of the match, but Etebo's uncompromising attitude and ability to control the tempo of the game was again vital is one they have rode on to three victories. It was evident even when they lost and will be needed if Nigeria are to go beyond the last eight.
3. Rohr's substitutions worthy of questioning?
The Nigeria manager usually leaves his changes until late in games and very often makes switches with which supporters do not agree. His actions in this department during this game were a mixed bag.
He got the first one correct on two counts, bringing on fan favourite Samuel Chukwueze -- sacrificing the defensive attributes of Moses Simon -- with just under an hour played. The impact was immediate; Chukwueze is a harbinger of chaos, with quick feet and an ability to take on defenders that causes constant worry in opponents.
Rohr's second sub -- Paul Onuachu for Ighalo -- fell into the exasperated "oh no, not again" category. The feeling among fans is that Osimhen, or even Henry Onyekuru, would have been better choices to harass a tired Cameroon defence. As if to make that point, Onuachu struggled and there were audible groans each time he gave the ball away.
It was also instructive to see Ahmed Musa screaming to the touchline for Leon Balogun to brought on as the Nigerians tried to see the game out. The defender eventually replaced Iwobi during injury time, which left a feeling that, maybe, Rohr just does not know the right time to change things.