Monday, February 11, 2013

Nigeria, New Orange AFCON 2013 Winner

Nigeria are Africa Cup of Nations champions for the first time since 1994. The Super Eagles, who'd suffered a series of semifinal defeats over the last decade, managed to go all the way this time, beating Burkina Faso 1-0 thanks to a spectacular goal from Sunday Mba just before halftime coupled with a solid defensive performance to keep Les Étalons at bay in the second half.

It took all of a minute for Nigeria to register their first shot on target. A neat move freed up Efe Ambrose on the right wing, and the fullback's snapshot was gobbled up by Daouda Diakite. Nigeria had dominated their group-stage match against Burkina Faso, making their first ever appearance in a Cup of Nations final, only to see the underdogs grab a late equaliser, and it didn't take long for the Super Eagles to generate clear-cut chances. 

John Obi Mikel's free kick -- well won by Brown Ideye -- picked out Ambrose unmarked on the penalty spot, but the Celtic man's free header missed well high when he probably should have done better. A Victor Moses corner was nearly stabbed in by Ideye after Diakite spilled the ball, but his effort on an open goal was also high and had it been on target would have been ruled out by a phantom foul regardless. 

The linesman's flag then prevented Ikechukwu Uche from bursting through the Burkinabé lines, but Les Étalons managed to compose themselves and reply through the happily un-suspended Jonathan Pitroipa, whose driving run and incisive pass would have made for a much better result had any white shirt been chasing into Vincent Enyeama's penalty box.

But the impetus was with the Super Eagles, and to make matters worse the Burkina Faso defence was handing them chances on a plate. The impressively-coiffed Paul Koulibaly attempted a backheel in his own penalty box which went straight to Ideye, and only an awful attempted pass to the flank prevented Nigeria from carving their opponents wide open, and seconds later another spill by Diakite very nearly gave Uche another opportunity.

Pressure on the Burkinabé defence was at least partially relieved when Aristide Bancé managed to create some space to pull the ball down and shoot, but his long range effort was well off-target and it would have taken some shot to beat Enyeama from 30 yards anyway. More dangerous was a 27th-minute free kick won by Prejuce Nakoulma, but Bancé's effort was again off-target. 

By now the game had settled down and Nigeria were no longer as dominant as in the opening stages, but the Super Eagles were still generating half-chances and Stephen Keshi was left anguished on the bench when Ideye failed to control a relatively easy ball while through on goal. It was obvious that they had the edge on Burkina Faso in terms of quality, but failing to take their chances against the Burkinabé had already cost Nigeria once and with every passing minute at 0-0 an upset became more likely.

Moses, who'd missed the opener, attempted to galvanise his side with a mazy run only to be brought down by Florent Rouamba for the game's first yellow card. The resultant free kick came, like everything else attempted in the match to that point, to nothing. Ogenyi Onazi ensured that the yellow card standings were even with a late stamp on Nakoulma a few minutes later. 

But then, in the 40th minute, came the moment of quality that the game needed. A lucky bounce sent Nigeria clear, and although Moses ended up crowded out in the box, his blocked shot fell to the toes of Sunday Mba. It didn't look particularly promising, but he dinked the ball over a stunned Mohamed Koffi before smashing a volley past a helpless Diakite to make it 1-0 with an absolute peach of a goal, the first scored by a postgraduate degree in a major cup final. 

That scoreline would last through halftime despite Les Étalons pushing forward in search of an equaliser, and the Super Eagles took steps to settle the match down after the restart. More good work from Moses led to another Nigeria chance, with Ideye trying to beat Diakite from an absurd angle, and the Dynamo Kiev forward might well have succeeded if not for a fortunate touch from the goalkeeper. 

Mali had more or less handed the semifinal to Nigeria after going down, but Burkina Faso showed no sign of being cowed by going behind. Bancé in particular was a handful for the centre back pairing of Godfrey Obobona and Kenneth Omeruo, and the Burkinabé were using him as an outlet whenever they managed to secure the ball. 

Nigeria's lead wasn't entirely safe, and in order to get more firepower on the pitch Keshi withdrew the disappointing Uche and threw counterattacking specialist Ahmed Musa on in his place. The Super Eagles now had speed to burn on both flanks, and it nearly paid off immediately when Moses broke free after a cleared Burkina Faso corner only to be blocked off by Saidou Panandetiguiri in the box after taking too many touches.

Musa then got in on the action, sending an off-blanace shot well high and wide, but play was soon interrupted by a knee-on-knee clash between Omeruo and Pitroipa which saw the former yellow carded. Mikel also entered Djamel Haimoudi's book for complaining, but more serious damage was nearly done when the free kick was headed goalwards -- and straight at Enyeama -- by Bancé.

Another dangerous-looking free kick was given up by Ambrose minutes later, again for a foul on Pitroipa, but Mikel cleared the cross comfortably and the attack fizzled out with a weak long-range effort from Djakaridja Kone. More worrying for the Super Eagles was an injury to Elderson Echiejile, who had attempted to play on through a knock only to go down in a heap in the 64th minute. 

Juwon Oshaniwa replaced the stricken left back, and he was immediately involved when he was shown yellow for dragging down Charles Kaboré as the Burkina Faso captain attempted to drive down their right flank. Again, Mikel cleared, but that didn't stop the pressure Les Étalons were applying. 

Of course, heavy pressure means easier counterattacks, which is just what Nigeria were hoping for. Moses broke free in the centre and his pass to Musa looked certain to result in a goal only for the CSKA Moscow winger to fall over in the penalty area as he tried to pull the trigger. At the other end of the pitch Enyeama was forced into a magnificent save from Burkinabé substitute Wilfried Sanou as he attempted to find the far corner (inexplicably, Haimoudi gave a Nigeria goal kick).

It was, in other words, a match that was far from settled. The Super Eagles would not have forgotten that late comeback in their opening match, and although Burkina Faso weren't looking that threatening, they were still inching closer and closer to an equaliser. 

Nigeria needed another goal to wrap the match up. They'd get a great opportunity to do so ten minutes from time, when Koulibaly knocked over Ideye at the edge of the penalty box, but the free kick was completely wasted by the man who'd won it, continuing Ideye's match-long of doing everything right except for finishing chances.

Les Étalons also needed a goal, and that led to an attacking change for Paul Put's side. Off went centre back Koulibaly, and on went Moumouni Dagano, a substitution which gave Burkina Faso far more firepower up front. But instead of pushing forward, they nearly gifted Nigeria a second with an absurd backpass that saw Diakite forced to take out Moses. Fortunately for the underdogs, no penalty was given; equally fortunate was Ideye's bizarre miss from Musa's cross seconds later. 

Four minutes of stoppage time wasn't enough for Burkina Faso to replicate their group stage feat, and after a thrilling 90 minutes which made up for in excitement what it may have lacked in quality, Nigeria emerged as the winners of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

It's party time in Lagos.

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