This year’s African Cup of Nations is about to come to an end, and after the battle for bronze between Tunisia and Nigeria, only the final, featuring Senegal and Algeria, remains to be played.
Both managers changed a few things in their respective line-ups from their semifinal defeats last weekend.
For Tunisia, coach Alain Giresse chose the following men:
Moez Ben Cherifia replaced Mouez Hassen in goal, perhaps due to the error Hassen had made against Senegal which lost his team the chance to fight for the trophy. Nassim Hnid came into the heart of defence instead of Dylan Bronn, who had ended up scoring that fatal own-goal. Yassine Meriah kept his place and started beside Hnid, with Mohamed Draeger and Oussama Haddadi on defensive flanks. Ghilane Chaalali played in midfield from the start this time, along with Ellyes Skhiri and Ferjani Sassi. Anice Badri started ahead of Youssef Msakni in a wide attacking role, with Taha Yassine Khenisi and Wahbi Khazri keeping their places.
For Nigeria, coach Gernot Rohr put Francis Uzoho between the posts instead of Daniel Akpeyi. Kenneth Omeruo and William Troost-Ekong continued as the centre-back pairing, as well as Jamilu Collins at left-back. However, Chidozie Awaziem on the other side was left out to make way for Ola Aina. The midfield three remained unchanged with Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfried Ndidi playing deep roles to allow Alex Iwobi more freedom ahead. Ahmed Musa and Samuel Chukwueze flanked Odion Ighalo upfront once more.
The First Half
The game kicked off to a flying start as Nigeria pressed forward straight away and waited less then three minutes to be rewarded. Collins broke down the left and whipped the ball low towards the six yards where Ben Cherifia and Meriah made a mess of things and allowed Ighalo to poke the ball into the empty net.
Tunisia obviously decided not to allow themselves to be defeated so soon and they went forward in numbers, which suited Nigeria well. Rohr’s men closed ranks at the back and weren’t at all troubled by the prospect of playing on counterattacks.
Nonetheless, the game was far from settled at this point. Tunisia had a good chance in the eighth minute when Khenissi broke down the right and took a shot, but Omeruo reacted well and diverted his effort wide. Nigeria hit back three minutes later as they took advantage of a half-hearted attempt by Tunisia to play out the back and won possession quickly, but as Ighalo eventually squared the ball into six yards, he found only opposing defenders there. Minute 14 was ending when Sassi dribbled past an opponent and took a shot from the edge of the box, missing the target by a yard or so. Three minutes later Aina thwarted Badri’s dangerous run at the last possible moment with a daring piece of defending.
Tunisia were slowly tightening the circle around the Nigeria box. In the 19th minute Ndidi conceded a foul in a dangerous position and earned a yellow card, but Khazri’s effort grazed the wall and went out for a corner.
The determination and concentration of Tunisia players seemed to be wavering gradually as the game progressed. They were looking more docile by the minute and Nigeria began to take advantage of the situation, taking more possession and control for themselves and pushing forward. However, both defences stuck to their tasks and after that lively exchange that followed the opening goal, neither team managed to create anything of note for a while.
On the other hand, neither team seemed to be lacking motivation. The battle in the middle of the park was mostly fierce and fouls were being committed with some frequency. There was still a decent dose of fair-play involved with no player in danger of an injury, until Aina followed a well-timed sliding tackle through a few minutes before the break and caught Khenissi, forcing Giresse to withdraw the winger. Firas Chaouat took to the pitch.
On the very stroke of 45 minutes, Nigeria made a forced substitution too as Ighalo grabbed his hamstring and gestured towards the bench, signaling his inability to continue playing. Victor Osimhen took his place.
The Second Half
Tunisia almost equalized within an even shorter time frame than the one needed for Ighalo to break the deadlock at the start, but even though Chaouat had made a fine run in behind to latch onto a perfectly placed through pass from Khazri, all he managed to do was hit the outside of the net.
Still, the moment appeared to have strengthened the belief of the Tunisia players while causing the concentration of their opponents to drop slightly, and the game took a one-way traffic form for a while. Even when Meriah misplaced a pass in his own half in the 57th minute and gave Nigeria a chance to move forward, the players in green shirts simply couldn’t take advantage.
Sensing it was time for a fresh pair of legs upfront, Giresse replaced Badri with Naim Sliti sixty seconds later.
For all of the initiative Tunisia were showing, in the 64th minute Nigeria came very close to adding a second goal. They took a corner short and worked up a good position for Chukwueze to shoot from just ouside the box, and the winger forced a difficult save from Ben Cherifia.
Nonetheless, Tunisia kept trying to find a way through the stubborn Nigeria defence. Their attacks were reasonably varied; quick passes coupled with movement fluency, occasional diagonal switches of play, long balls from the back, crosses whipped in from wide positions, through passes for runners in behind, shots from range… But nothing worked.
With 15 minutes to go, Rohr withdrew Musa and sent on Moses Simon for Nigeria, and his players soon started playing for time, something referee Ghead Grisha from Egypt noticed.
Towards the end, the game promised to yield another lively period. In the 82nd minute, Nigeria suddenly threatened through Osimhen who charged forward, took on Meriah and shot low, but Ben Cheraifi saved his team once again. Less than a minute later Tunisia were at it again and Chaouat tried to shoot from around 12 yards, but one of the opposing defenders stuck his leg out at the right moment to block the path of the ball.
In the final minute of the 90, Chukwueza made way for Samuel Kalu for Nigeria, and the freshly introduced player stepped up to take a free-kick from 35 yards. His shot almost caught Ben Cherifia by surprise as it dipped straight under the crossbar, but the Tunisia ‘keeper got there in time to tip it over. Kalu made Ben Cherifia work again within a minute, this time with a low drive from just outside the box.
Nigeria managed to keep the ball far away from their goal through the five minutes of stoppage time, and succeeded in preserving their lead to the final whistle.
It was a contest between two sides boasting a lot of spirit, a lot of desire to win, though not really producing any moments of magic. To put it simply, Nigeria made the most of a lucky moment at the very start as Ighalo took advantage of Tunisia’s defensive blunder to poke in what turned out to be the winning goal. Nonetheless, it took unwavering composure at the back for them to hold off Tunisia’s relentless attacks, and with that in mind, it could be said that they deserved to win the game and the bronze medal it brings.
Just like after the semifinal defeat to Senegal, Tunisia shouldn’t have any regrets when it comes to this tournament. No words of blame can be said to any of their players in terms of desire and commitment, though those involved in the two moments of concentration lapse in the final two games will perhaps look back with a feeling of guilt.
TUNISIA: Ben Cherifia 7.5, Hnid 7 (67′ Bedoui 7), Meriah 6, Draeger 7, Haddadi 6.5, Skhiri 5.5, Sassi 6, Chaalali 6.5, Badri 6.5 (58′ Sliti), Khazri 8, Khenissi 6.5 (44′ Chaouat 6.5).
NIGERIA: Uzoho 7, Omeruo 7, Troost-Ekong 7, Collins 7.5, Aina 7.5, Etebo 7, Ndidi 7, Iwobi 6.5, Musa 5, Chukwueze 6.5, Ighalo 7.5 (45′ Osimhen 7).
GOALS: Ighalo 3′.
YELLOW CARDS: Ndidi 19′, Chaalali 61′, Bedoui 90′.
REFEREE: Ghead Grisha (Egypt).
DATE & VENUE: July 17, 2019, Al Salam Stadium, Cairo.
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