Nigeria ejected Cup holders Cameroon out of the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations after a brace by Odion Ighalo spearheaded a spirited fightback at the Alexandria Stadium on Saturday.
The Round of 16 clash was not given much of a rating after Nigeria suffered a nightmarish 2-0 defeat by lowly Madagascar in their final group match on Saturday and Cameroon failed to defeat Benin Republic and ended up in second place in their pool.
Yet, the rivalry between both neighbouring countries made for a cagey start, with the Super Eagles, who sliced the Indomitable Lions to tiny bits in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying race, showing more urgency and purpose at the fore.
Moses Simon had dithered unexpectedly as Cameroon slipped in defence before Odion Ighalo, top scorer in the qualifying race with seven goals, put Nigeria ahead after connecting from a pass by Kenneth Omeruo in a melee that ensued following Oghenekaro Etebo’s free kick from the left. This was in the 19th minute. The ball deflected off a Cameroonian defender past goalkeeper Andre Onana.
Three minutes later, Simon fired a shot that was held by Onana, and at the other end, Stephane Bahoken, Clinton Njie and Choupo-Moting harassed the Nigeria defence as Kenneth Omeruo, William Ekong and goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi showed frail nerves.
The Cup holders equalized in the 41stminute when Bahoken lashed home from a pull out as the Nigeria defence ball –watched, and then shot into the lead three minutes later when Njie shook off the feeble challenge of Ola Aina and shot past Akpeyi.
Six minutes after the restart, Nigeria nearly conceded an own goal as Omeruo and Ekong faltered at the rear. On the hour, Nigeria introduced former junior international Samuel Chukwueze, and this brought some verve, zeal and energy into the Super Eagles’ attack.
Three minutes later, Chukwueze’s brilliant run ended with defender Chidozie Awaziem’s cross, which Ahmed Musa cleverly chested for the better –placed Ighalo to fire home his and Nigeria’s second of the evening.
With AFCON legends Nwankwo Kanu and Samuel Eto’o (who played against each other in the 2000 and 2004 finals, with honours even) seated in the VIP box, both teams chased a tie-breaker but it was Nigeria that got it in the 66th minute. They profited from their ascendancy with a clinical strike by Alex Iwobi from a smart pass by Ighalo.
AIthough they were hardly spectacular on the night, with most moves rather lumberous and ponderous, Ighalo’s man-of-the-match performance egged on the Super Eagles and eventually landed them in the quarter finals, in which they confront South Africa’s Bafana Bafana at the Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday.
1996 champions South Africa shocked host nation Egypt 1-0 at the Cairo International Stadium on Saturday evening, setting up another clash with familiar foes Nigeria, whom they defeated 2-0 in Uyo but had to force to a 1-1 draw in Johannesburg in the qualifying series for this championship.
Saturday’s feat was the sixth time that Nigeria would eliminate a defending champion from the Africa Cup of Nations. In 1976, a young squad captained by Christian Chukwu mauled then Cup holders Zaire (now DR Congo) 4-2 in Ethiopia, and in 1984, Nigeria edged Cup holders Ghana 2-1 in Cote d’Ivoire.
In 1994, on the way to winning a second title, the Super Eagles sent packing Cup holders Cote d’Ivoire after penalties in the semi final, and in 2004, bundled out Cameroon (winners in Mali in 2002) 2-1 in a quarter final match in Monastir, Tunisia.
Two years later, incidentally in Egypt, the Super Eagles ejected Cup holders Tunisia after penalties in an interesting quarter final match in Port Said.
NFF partners AITEO, Nigeria’s leading energy solution company, will reward the team with the sum of $75,000, after promising the sum of $25,000 for one goal before the match against Cameroon.