Salah flops as Nigeria dominate Egypt in AFCON opener; MOTM revealed

By Innocent Benjamin

Nigeria began their AFCON 2021 journey with a win over fellow favourites, Egypt, as Salah struggles significantly

Nigeria celebrate Kelechi Iheanacho's goal against Egypt in AFCON 2021

The Super Eagles of Nigeria have defeated the Pharaohs of Egypt by a lone goal in Group D's AFCON opener, ZonalSports reports.

In what was billed as the game of the round, Nigeria dominated the Pharaohs over large periods, but were profligate in front of goal, with the single goal flattering their well-beaten opponents

Despite the pre-game hype, the tie was cagey in the majority of the first half hour as both teams accessed each other's qualities. 

The game’s first real opening came in the 25th minute, when Aribo slipped through Moses Simon, the most active player of the first half, through on goal. 

But the Nantes man could only find the side netting after being forced to shoot with his weaker left foot from a tight angle.

The chance was just a sign of things to come as five minutes later Moses showed why he was one of the most creative players in Europe this season when his left-footed cross was half cleared by the Egyptian rearguard and found Aribo just inside the Egyptian 18-yard box.

The Rangers man then guided a headed pass to Kelechi Iheanacho who thumped a fierce drive past Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy for the opener.

Nigeria started the second half very strongly, camping the Pharaohs in their half within the first five minutes. 

The persistent pressure almost paid off when Ola Aina managed to keep a lost ball in play with a cross that found Awoniyi at the near post.

The Union Berlin striker’s header was on target and forced a reflexive save out of the veteran goalkeeper, who pushed against the post.

The Super Eagles remained relentless nonetheless, and had a chance to double their lead in the 56th minute when Ola Aina dispossessed Mohammed Salah in his own half and ran the full length of the pitch before finally being thwarted by a busy El-Shenawy.

The rebound fell kindly at the feet of Iheanacho whose poor control let him down with an unmanned goal at his mercy.

In between these chances, a quiet Mohammed Salah had a rare shooting chance from range but was tackled ferociously, albeit legally, by captain Troost-Ekong.

Nigeria maintained pressure on the Egyptian rearguard and in the 65th minute were rewarded with yet another chance.

Zaidu Sanusi took a short quick free-kick to Ndidi who slipped through dangerman Iheanacho, but the Leicester man failed to find the target despite shooting with his favoured left-foot.

Just the half-hour mark, Ola Aina continued his energetic box-box forays and fashioned another half-chance which was well blocked by the Egyptian defence.

As the last 20 minutes of the game approached, Salah had his first shot of the tournament in the 68th minute after being found out with a cross by substitute Zizo.

Presented with a one-one chance against Okoye, Troost-Ekong did well to recover and force the Liverpool man to shoot tamely at the goalie.

As Egypt sent bodies forward to salvage at least a point from a corner in the 92nd minute, they left themselves vulnerable on the counter and Nigeria almost capitalised on this.

Turning attack into defence in a flash, substitute Ejuke found himself one-on-one against El-Shenawy in a tight angle but couldn’t get past the goalkeeper, in what was the wingers second face-off with the goalie. 

In the end, the lone goal proved the winner of the one-sided affair, sending Nigeria top of Group D, following Sudan and Guinea-Bissau's goalless stalemate.

At full-time, Nigeria had 15 attempts on the Egyptian goal compared to only 5 for the Pharaohs. 

Egypt and Mohammed Salah fail first hurdle

Egypt’s clash against Nigeria was arguably the tie of the first round, as it boasted more players at the highest level than any other fixture. 

In the starting line-ups alone were seven players contracted to Premier League clubs, the biggest league in the world including: Maduka Okoye (Watford), William Troost-Ekong (Watford), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester) , Kelechi Iheanacho( Leicester), Mohammed Elneny (Arsenal), Trezeguet (Aston Villa and Mohammed Salah (Liverpool).

Left on the bench were two more in Frank Onyeka of Brentford and Everton's Alex Iwobi. 

However, in the build-up to the heavyweight clash, the cynosure of all eyes were on Mohammed Salah, who has been touted by many as the best player in the world currently. 

The player had recently stated in an interview that he wasn't holding Liverpool to ransom with his wage demands.

Despite this heavy tilt in their favour, Egypt were second-best for the entirety of the contest, if it was a contest at all.

Despite bossing more of the possession in both halves, they could only muster 4 shots, with their most clear-cut chance of the evening coming in the 68th minute.

This was also shockingly Salah’s first shot in the game and it was an effort which if the goalkeeper had failed to save never seemed destined for the back of the net.

In his defense however, the Liverpool forward was deployed in a more central role while Mostafa Mohamed, a striker by trade, was drifted further wide. 

Despite being a goal down for over 60 minutes, there never seemed a period where the Pharaohs took control of the game. 

Egypt would be looking to bounce back and justify their pre-tournament classification as AFCON "favourites" when they face debutants Guinea-Bissau on 15th January in Roumde Adjia, Garoua. 

Nigeria show promise after Rohr sack

Although the Egyptians deserve much criticism for failing to turn up to the party, Nigeria actually deserve much more credit for dominating the most successful team in African history.

From the onset of kick off, the Super Eagles showed intent and deservedly took the lead after overwhelming the Egyptians in their 18 yard box. 

Ahead of the tournament, off-the-field issues had dominated the headlines, with backlash centered on the timing of the sack of long-term boss, Gernot Rohr, who was dismissed not for poor results but for the team’s banal performances. 

The decision of the NFF board appears to have been initially vindicated, as this performance matched or even bettered any other in the German tactician’s era.

The midfield pairing of Ndidi and Aribo controlled the tempo of the game well, although the aforementioned was atimes clumsy and indecisive in possession.

Also Iheanacho was successfully deployed in his most comfortable formation, a two-man pivot, and the numerous chances presented to him hinted at a player comfortable in his position.

Eguavoen impresses on third Nigerian debut

Many of Gernot Rohr’s critics had highlighted the German’s tentative approaches to games which had seen the Eagles consistently fail to assert dominance even over minnows. 

Eguavoen’s first action to stem this out was to opt for a defensive pairing over three at the back. In truth, this tactical switch could also have been enforced as a result of the unavailability of first choice defenders: Leon Balogun and Chidozie Awaziem. 

Nonetheless, the technical director repeated the feat at the centre of the pack, using only one defensive-minded midfielder in Ndidi alongside the more expressive Aribo.

He was also confident enough to field four attackers in Chukwueze, Moses Simon, Iheanacho and Awoniyi. 

His substitutions also spoke volumes, as his first look to the bench was not to safeguard the slim lead but to re-energize the already tiring attack. 

The decision almost paid concrete dividends as Chidera Ejuke, one of the first two introductions, was a constant menace to the Egyptians. 

However, his decision to sub-on a struggling Nigerian favourite in Kelechi Nwakali over in-form Premier League midfielder, Frank Onyeka, could raise eyebrows.

Looking on the bright side, for the first time in a long while, a manager left aging Turkish-based Ahmed Musa on the bench, who has been inconsistent in his showings for the Eagles. 

Nigeria would be hoping to seal qualification to the knockout rounds in four days' time when they play the Falcons of Jediane in Garoua’s Roumde Adjia stadium. 

Official man of the Match: Kelechi Iheanacho

With his goal and vibrant performance, tournament sponsors TotalEnergies awarded Iheanacho the man of the match award.

ZonalSports Man of the match: Ola Aina

The Torino wing-back was a stalwart for the Super Eagles both in attack and defence. 

Despite operating as a traditional full-back, rather than the more modern wing-back role, Aina had the 2nd most shots in the game, just two behind the whole Egyptian team. 

As well as his shooting attempts, he created a huge chance from which Iheanacho should have doubled the Eagles’ lead.

It was in defence where his qualities shone the brightest as he completed six tackles, the most in the game, and only Hamdi Fathi made more interceptions. 

Lastly his 4 clearances were only bettered by Ahmed Hegazy and William Troost-Ekong in a what was a man of the Match performance.

While Iheanacho's goal and attacking displays make him a top candidate for the award, the fact that Aina kept a clean sheet tilts this in his direction.