By Abraham Oluwatunmise (@OluwatunmiseAOF)
Millions will agree with me that this set of home-based Super Eagles aka CHAN Eagles have surprised us all in becoming the first team representing Nigeria, to come this far in the CHAN tournament. It is also noteworthy that this team has wobbled their way into the final against all odds.
They had a poor preparation in the build-up to the tournament, playing only a practice match against Cameroon which ended goalless merely days before the tournament kicked off. Well, you will say that they won the NPFL Super 6 tournament which I describe as glorified friendly games. I mean, many of these players played against their actual club teammates, right?
‘Lucky’ Eagles’ Run to the Final vs. The Analyst Curse
The first game against Rwanda was one to forget. The woodwork denied the Eagles three times.
On the other end, the combination of Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Stephen Eze denied a rampaging Rwanda a chance to snatch a late winner. Earlier in the day, Nigeria’s North Africans foes, Libya, made light work of Equatorial Guinea, silencing them in quick fashion.
All Taber’s brace within the space of 5 first half minutes put the match beyond the Guineans and an 86th-minute strike from Al Harash ensured that the Libyans won the game and topped the group.
I was particularly apprehensive going into the second match against Libya bothering on the fact that the 2014 champions were particularly a joy to watch, especially their smooth and quick transition from defense to attack.
I predicted the Eagles will be slain. Sunday Faleye proved me wrong, scoring the only goal in the 79th minute to ensure the Nigerians topped Group C with 4 points after 2 games. It was altogether a disjointed performance by the boys who once again rode on luck and depended on the proverbial ‘god of soccer‘ to win again. The result defied logic.
I was almost right again when Nsi’s 40th minute header ensured that the Guineans led going into the first half break. Nigerians were not happy. I saw gloomy faces around me at viewing centers. Analysts like me expected it……but then came the CHAN Eagles again, scoring twice in ten minutes.
Okpotu (of all people) started the revival with his first goal of the tournament. It was then followed by that late screamer from Dayo Ojo, a goal that reminded us of Sunday Oliseh’s goal against Spain at France ’98. Rabiu Ali added a late third from the spot. The Eagles eventually qualified as group winners and their next opponent was the seemingly dangerous and compact Angola.
Angola played expansive football but also suffered a similar fate with the Super Eagles. They scored a solitary goal against Cameroon (from the penalty spot) but they did not conceded a goal in 3 games. I predicted a loss again for the Super Eagles (don’t get it twisted, I’m a full-blooded Nigerian).
And so it happened again, the Angolans drew the first blood into the 56th minute. Their first goal from open play and Timothy Danladi was the culprit. Okpotu, for the umpteenth time, was both the villain and the hero.
After missing several chances and needing Ikechukwu Ezenwa to keep us in the game again, the Lobi stars man scored in the added time (92 minutes) to force extra time. Step in Okechukwu Gabriel, the player who scored early in the 2nd half of extra time as Vá and his teammates efforts amounted to nothing.
The semifinal was quickly settled. Gabriel Okechukwu picked up from where he left things off and scored as early as the 16th minute. But we still needed all the goalkeeping prowess of Oladele Muniru Ajiboye who was brought in to replace the injured Ezenwa at the 12th minute mark. He made a total number of 14 saves to send the Eagles to the final in Casablanca.
What Next Now?
A final against the host and the best team in the tournament should send shiver down the spine of the CHAN Eagles and Nigerians. Stephen Eze has distinguished himself at the heart of the defense of the Super Eagles but whoever pairs him in this game – Kalu Orji or Timothy Danladi – will have their hands full against the attacking prowess of the Atlas Lions.
Ayab El Kaabi has scored 8 goals in the tournament so far and he is their target man. However, the pace of Wydaad man Achraf Bencharki and Ismail Haddad provides the base for the team’s attacking templates.
On the other end, Anthony Okpotu must find his quick sense of judgment and decision making. Chances will be far and few for the home-based Eagles, therefore every chance matters and the Eagles must take their chances. The delivery of Osas Okoro into the danger zone will also matter a lot against the hosts.
Strengths vs. Weaknesses
Arguably, the Super Eagles have been able to convert their weakness to their strength. One major weakness is their sloppy play and seeming lack of team cohesion. However, in every match since the tourney began, individual players have been able to show sheer determination in combining with their teammates to pick up loose balls (a good example is the Gabriel’s goal against Angola).
With Russia 2018 around the corner, some of these players will want to play their way into the plans of Gernot Rohr.
Don’t forget, Nigeria found themselves in a similar position at the WAFU tournament but lost to host nation, Ghana in emphatic fashion: 4 goals to 1 it ended. Needless to say, the team did not concede a goal prior to the final of that tournament.
I don’t hope for a repeat.
Lions 2:1 Eagles