Nigeria and Algeria clashed in the Semi-final at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Sunday evening in Cairo. A last-gasp winner saw The Desert Warriors take a 2-1 victory and a place in the final. Nigeria’s tournament will conclude with Wednesday’s third-place playoff, while Algeria will face Senegal in the decider on Friday evening.
Nigeria named an unchanged side from their late 2-1 victory over South Africa in the quarter-final. Samuel Chukwueze’s man of the match performance in that game meant he kept his place on the right wing, whilst John Mikel Obi and Ola Aina remained on the substitutes’ bench, as Jamilu Collins kept his place at left back.
Algeria made one enforced change to their side from the victory on penalties against Ivory Coast. Mehdi Zeffane replaced Youcef Atal at right back after the latter’s broken collarbone as the other ten players all started their third game in a row. Djamel Belmadi continued with a very settled side.
ALGERIA PRESS & POSSESS
The first period of the game saw Algeria, despite one day less rest after going to extra time and penalties, pressing aggressively high up the pitch and dominating possession of the ball. In their usual 4-1-4-1 formation, Belmadi’s side had a clear initial plan: to play out from the back wherever possible and to overload the central areas of the pitch.
As Nigeria continued their man-oriented defending in midfield, with each of Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Alex Iwobi picking up a man, Algeria found a way around that by bringing one wide player – usually Riyad Mahrez into a narrow role to create a four versus three overload in that area. The Manchester City winger had 35 touches in the first half, more than any Nigeria player.
To balance these movements, Youcef Belaili stayed wider on the left flank than he usually does, receiving switches of play and giving Chidozie Awaziem his toughest half of the tournament with his direct dribbling. An early in-swinging Belaili cross handed a chance for Baghdad Bounedjah to steer wide, before a rattled Awaziem fouled the Algeria winger. A pass later on was missed by the Super Eagles right back and Belaili ran onto the ball in a dangerous area too.
Two of the best chances came when Algeria switched up the movements with Mahrez hugging the right touchline, Belaili being the man to come inside to create the overload and Algeria then switching play over to their captain. A chance had arrived after Daniel Akpeyi’s poor punch from a Mahrez cross, before the goal followed the same pattern.
Belaili came inside, Guedioura vacated his position to make space and the left winger could pick out Mahrez on the flank. He surprised Collins by going on the outside and his cross was deflected into his own net by William Troost-Ekong. Having started the game so well, having 67% of the ball in the opening 17 minutes, as well as creating one other very clear chance as Ndidi gave the ball away and Bounedjah beat Omeruo to the resultant pass on the counter-attack, Algeria were worthy of their lead.
Perhaps the key man for The Desert Warriors was Ismael Bennacer. The left-footed midfielder would drop deep and to the left when his side were playing out from the back, away from pressure, then look for early passes forward. When the ball was on Nigeria’s left, he would ready himself to press high on Troost-Ekong if a sideways pass was played by Omeruo or Etebo. The Dutch-born centre back’s ability to hit accurate diagonals was clearly identified as a threat to nullify with quick closing down. The Algeria midfielder had also intercepted Ndidi’s pass in the lead up to Bounedjah’s one-on-one opening which Akpeyi had saved.
POSITION OVER POSSESSION
Having started the game so aggressively, Algeria eased off for the latter part of the first half. They had controlled the match with possession up to that point, but instead focused on controlling the game by defensive positioning from then on.
Nigeria had not been without some half-chances, almost entirely from transitions – including Etebo robbing Mahrez from one of his regular deep shows for the ball – and sending Iwobi away to set up an Ighalo shot, which was dragged wide. The other openings had come from Etebo’s superb deliveries from dead-ball situations. The same can’t be said for Ahmed Musa’s long-throws with neither of the tall central defenders coming forward to challenge for the ball. It felt like a desperate ploy.
An indication of how much possession Nigeria had was that the Super Eagles were up to 52% by the hour mark despite having struggled to regain the ball for the opening 20 minutes. The sight of striker, Bounedjah running 50 yards to hack down Iwobi on a counter-attack showed Algeria had eased off. They were to pay for trying to conserve energy when a penalty was given against Aissa Mandi for handling Etebo’s shot, which had been going well wide. Ighalo converted the lifeline from VAR for an undeserved equaliser – a reversal of the scenario in Nigeria’s previous match.
The Super Eagles were now clearly the fresher team, as Iwobi began to move into the half spaces behind Bennacer and Feghouli to receive the ball, whilst Ighalo began to drop off the front and drag Mandi out of the backline. This was a welcome move as the forward had been a peripheral figure up to that point. Etebo and Ndidi were also getting on the ball more often, without needing to worry as much about chasing Algerian shadows in midfield.
The high possession numbers were not yielding chances though, and eventually Chukwueze was taken off. The winger’s performance against South Africa highlighted him as a key man, so Ramy Bensebaini stuck close to him, even in narrow positions. With Awaziem too occupied to get forward, it was a pretty straightforward job for the Algeria left back. Gernot Rohr withdrew his young wide player and gave Henry Onyekuru his first outing of the tournament, at a curious time to do so. Musa was having as little effect on the other flank. The injury to Atal at right back for Algeria meant a more conservative Zeffane in that role, and he never allowed Musa to expose the space behind him.
ALGERIA ROUSING FINISH
Having visibly eased off in the second half, with fatigue also setting in, Algeria found the energy to mount a very strong finish. Extra time was certainly not an attractive proposition having had just two rest days since playing 120 minutes in the quarter-final.
All of the four attacking midfielders began to turn the screw on a Nigeria side seemingly content to play 30 extra minutes. Sofiane Feghouli, who had found himself free between-the-lines for large parts of the game, was particularly impressive in linking with Mahrez, although ignored the captain and shot instead from one chance. Bennacer rattled the crossbar (as the referee inadvertently stopped Ndidi from closing down the shot). Mahrez went on a mazy run but was tackled by Awaziem before he could shoot. Then Bennacer was taken down by Ndidi after the latter’s heavy touch from a defensive clearance. Mahrez stepped up to rifle home the winner. Akepyi had taken a small, but fatal, step to his left and was beaten by the pace of the strike to his right.
This was a very much deserved victory for an Algeria side who had better tactical organisation and quality than Nigeria. They could play out from the back and look to dominate possession, whilst being able to press aggressively to regain the ball. They were also able to drop off and give Nigeria possession, whilst their front players had a chemistry not seen with Rohr’s side.
The Super Eagles have not had answers when challenged to break down organised defences in this tournament. Their knockout victories came with 38% and 39% possession respectively and with a big reliance on transitions and wide play. They are best when they win the ball in midfield from man-marking and find their speedy wingers in space or Iwobi between-the-lines. That happened only rarely in this match.
Such was the intensity of Algeria’s late flurry of chances to win the game, that it appeared they deliberately conserved energy to look for a late goal. The Onyekuru change did not work as it just invited Bensebaini forward (and therefore Belaili inside) and Rohr could perhaps have been more proactive in trying to win the game instead of betting on his fresher side to score in extra time.
A moment of high quality by Mahrez, a foul by Ndidi and an error of positioning by Akpeyi decided this tie – small margins matter in knockout football. The scoreline in this game could have been more comfortable based on the performances of the two sides – a complete role reversal from Nigeria dominating South Africa but only winning in the dying stages.