The Super Eagles of Nigeria were on the wrong end of perhaps the biggest upset yet at the ongoing 2021 Africa Cup of Nations as they lost 1-0 to Tunisia in the Round of 16.
The result is surprising because of the contrasting fortunes of both teams in the group stage which Nigeria stood out and won all three games while Tunisia barely made it to the knockout rounds.
The odds became even more stacked in Nigeria’s favour when news filtered through of Tunisia missing key personnel such as the head coach and seven players.
This is a monumental result for the Tunisians, who have every right to feel like they won it, but it feels more like Nigeria lost it. Here are three major causal factors.
On the strength of their group stage display, it was obvious that no team in this tournament can outplay the Super Eagles at their best, the biggest threat to Nigeria’s dominance was complacency.
It is difficult to conclude that the Super Eagles underrated Tunisia but it was obvious that Nigeria were complacent especially in the first half.
Whether it was confidence inspired by the dominance of their group stage run or Tunisia’s misfortune, the Super Eagles took too long to respect the threat of their opponents.
Using the first game against Egypt as an example, Nigeria played with intensity because they expected a difficult game, that intensity was missing for long periods of this game.
The first half saw the Super Eagles register four attempts – none of which were on target – and they had 52% but Tunisia still had the best chance of a goalless first half.
The Super Eagles only began to display urgency after conceding and going a man down after Alex Iwobi was sent off in the 66th minute.
Poor referee decision
Speaking of Alex Iwobi’s red card, it proved to be a major turning point in the game as it strangely spurred Nigeria to improve their performance, while also leaving a sense of injustice that the team could have equalised with all 11 men.
Alex Iwobi took a poor touch and unintentionally stamped on a Tunisian player while trying to recover in what looked like a yellow card. Senegalese referee Maguette N’diaye initially gave Iwobi a yellow card but controversially upgraded to a red card upon VAR review.
The challenge itself did look like a red card in a freeze-frame; it was a dangerous ankle stamp but that is where the referee’s discretion should have been applied.
Iwobi had only been on the pitch for six minutes, he was in possession of the ball, was not aware of the Tunisian player who was trying to steal the ball from his blindside and most importantly did not intend to hurt him.
The referee made a big call that ultimately decided this clash and should have been more sensitive to the consequences of his decision for Nigeria.
No Plan B
Be that as it may, the bottom line is that Augustine Eguavoen was tactically outwitted by Tunisians. Whether it was Covid-infected head coach Mondher Kebaier who pulled the strings from his hotel room or the assistant coach that did it on the touchline, they won the tactical battle.
The Tunisians knew Nigeria’s major threat was from the wings and they did everything possible to shutdown Moses Simon and Samuel Chukwueze. Both wingers were rendered ineffective for large portions of the game by double-teaming and tackling them aggressively.
Augustine Eguavoen should have recognised earlier that Tunisia had successfully cut off Nigeria’s creative channels and devised another means to hurt them. But the Super Eagles came out of the tunnel at half-time to continue attempting to do the same things while hoping for a different outcome.
For the Tunisians, it was like taking a test they already had answers to and when Nigeria did start to actually look threatening, they had already been reduced to ten.
The defeat is a bitter pill to swallow for Nigeria who genuinely looked like they had a shot at a fourth AFCON trophy but they would now have to wait till next year in Cote D’Ivoire.