The 2008 African Cup of Nations is truly underway and one team has already made their intentions clear at such an early stage. 2006 runners-up Ivory Coast(Cote D’Voire) are desperate to go one step further this time around. The Elephants took a firm lead in a tough Group B when a Salomon Kalou stunner left fellow West African favourites Nigeria in a spot of bother after the opening match at Sekondi in a repeat of the 2006 African Cup of Nations semi-final.
Expectations are very high, as always, for the Nigerian team as well. Given the extravagant riches of talent, it’s absolutely baffling to believe that the Super Eagles have failed to live up to the expectations of a demanding, yet passionate, support base since France 98. The current Nigerian coach Berti Vogts, winner of international silverwares for Germany(both as a player and coach), has lamented the very fact that football in the oil-rich country is as disorganised as the variety of world-class talents on offer across the country. This year’s tournament in familiar regional conditions have been built up as the chance for Nigeria’s under-achieving stars to come good at last.
The start has not been ideal for the Super Eagles as yesterday’s match against another richly talented side in the form of Ivory Coast brought to light same old story for the men in green. The likes of Kanu, Yakubu, Utaka and Martins have problems in scoring goals in big international matches. Isn’t it absolutely fascinating that the mentioned players score week and week out for their respective Premier League clubs cannot find the net playing together? That ‘together’ word has many footballing meanings which I would explain in some other articles later in the course of the African competition given Nigeria’s progress.
Well, the match did not produce enough goals, infact just one as mentioned earlier but the matchwinner proved to be a classic example of how these high-profile encounters get decided often. The first-half was a cagey affair with both the heavyweights testing each other out in short bursts but none could dictate the terms comprehensively. It was Nigeria that was intent to show some purpose in the early periods. Everton’s Ayegbeni Yakubu picked out captain Kanu with a delightful pass but the Portsmouth attacker dragged his shot well wide. The Super Eagles could have taken the lead when in the 17th minute Taye Taiwo sent a powerful free-kick that crashed against the Ivorian crossbar. Backed by armies of noisy and passionate Ivorian and Nigerian supporters, both the sides were trading punches in what was gradually turning into a ring-side tactical duel. A perfect game that pits two titans who have immense mutual respect for each other but could not land that initial blow.
Talisman Didier Drogba looked a bit rusty coming back from a long injury that had seen him miss much for club side Chelsea but still a mighty force to reckon and nearly landed that blow when he tested Nigerian goalie Austin Ejide from a direct free-kick. Newcastle’s fleet-footed Obafemi Martins was Nigeria’s biggest threat but was not doing enough to trouble the Ivorian defense masterly patrolled by the rock-like Kolo Toure.
Just after the half-hour mark Nigeria felt they should have had a penalty when Borussia Monchengladbach’s Steven Gohouri apparently tripped Martins but the man with the whistle, Algerian M.Benouzza showed the yellow card to the forward instead for diving. Gohouri was being given a torrid time by Martins. The defender was replaced by Kader Keita after the break as the Ivorian coach Gerard Gili felt that the Monchengladbach man was proving to be a weak link against the likes of Yakubu and Martins. The match remained goalless in the first half and credit must go to Nigeria’s Joseph Yobo and Cote D’Voire’s Kolo Toure for keeping it organised at the back.
The story was similar in the second-half too with both the sides exchanging good moves. One such good move saw Aruna Dindane flashed an effort narrowly wide for the Elephants after some initial good work just three minutes into the second-half. That could have proved costly had Nigeria’s Danny Shittu put away his header from 10 yards moments later. The big defender instead put it over. The Super Eagles got a blow injury-wise when influential leader Nwankwo Kanu was stretchered off following a clumsy challenge.
The chess match continued until the 66th minute when Chelsea man Salomon Kolou produced the moment of the match which deservedly turned out to be the winner in such a gruellingly close contest. The striker picked up the ball from the left-wing before taking out three Nigerian defenders and then firing a venomous 15-yard shot that gave Nigerian shotstopper Ejide no chance. A flash of brilliance from the man from Stamford Bridge.
Berti Vogts tried to bring in the changes as Nigeria threw everything for an equaliser but never troubled Ivorian keeper Boubacar Barry and had to settle for a repeat of the 2006 semi-final scoreline.