AFCON 2024: Improved Nigeria feel anything is possible for Super Eagles now

Nigeria's campaign at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2024) remains alive, after a 2-0 Round of 16 victory over neighbours Cameroon in Abidjan secured by strikes from Atalanta forward Ademola Lookman.

It wasn't quite the same Nigeria side that stumbled through the group stage. Despite collecting seven points from a maximum of nine, the performances of Jose Peseiro's team were anything but impressive.

Defensively, Nigeria proved formidable throughout those first three games. Still, upfront — where the team's strengths clearly lay — they were noticeably blunt, scoring just thrice (including one own goal and a centre-back's converted penalty).

Nigeria looked transformed against Cameroon

Against Cameroon, however, Nigeria stepped it up a notch or two on an occasion that demanded no less.

The back-line marshalled by the magisterial William Troost-Ekong let little past it on Saturday — the opposition landed none of their six shots on targets, creating exactly zero big chances — but, this time, Nigeria's attack clicked into gear, too.

Full of steam and enterprise — with Victor Osimhen, the reigning African Footballer of the Year, putting in a particularly great shift, despite not scoring himself — Nigeria had a lot going for them offensively, and the effort paid off handsomely.

This wasn't necessarily a flamboyant performance, but it surely was commanding, and Lookman's well-worked second goal finished it off with a flourish.

What does history say of Nigeria's chances?

The last time the Super Eagles won the AFCON, back in 2013, they weren't mighty impressive in the group stage. But the high stakes of knock-out football brought the best out of the late Stephen Keshi's charges, ultimately emerging triumphant. 

Those who saw that story unfold may have reason to think Peseiro is set to inspire a similar run, considering how massively improved Nigeria were on Saturday. After dispatching Cameroon, they take on Angola next, and would be wary of a potential banana peel.

The Palancas Negras thrashed Namibia in the day’s earlier fixture to match their all-time best AFCON result — quarter-finals finishes in 2008 and 2010 — and would, needless to say, want to raise the bar by making further progress.

Francis Uzoho @ Icon Sport
Photo by Icon Sport

Peseiro, of course, would want to ensure that doesn't happen, but history suggests their own chances of advancing are only as good as Angola's.

This may be just the two sides’ first-ever meeting at the AFCON finals, yet, in previous meetings — the last of which came more than 18 years ago in a FIFA World Cup qualifier — Nigeria have won only as many games (two) as they've lost and haven't beaten Angola since 1989.

Are Nigeria AFCON 2024 favourites now?

Ahead of AFCON 2024, Nigeria were only ranked sixth among the favourites to win it (per the determination of Opta's super-computer), a reflection perhaps of their patchy form in the build-up.

Courtesy of the underwhelming first-round fortunes of hosts Ivory Coast and record winners Egypt, as well as the exit of 2019 champions Algeria, however, Nigeria had moved up to third on that list by the end of the group stage.

It's only fair to say, then, that they're now within striking distance of a fourth title.

After eliminating Cameroon, the only truly big names remaining on Nigeria's side of the draw are Morocco and South Africa — one of whom would no longer be in contention after those two contest their Round of 16 meeting on Monday, anyway.

Photo by Icon Sport

Nigeria would feel pretty confident about outmuscling any heavyweight they face — two of their three wins thus far have come at the expense of former champions, after all — but in this tournament of shocks, there has been plenty of evidence that pedigree counts for little even against some of the continent's less fancied sides.

That's a trap Nigeria — who may also have to do without reliable goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali after he picked up an injury against Cameroon and was replaced by the less convincing Francis Uzoho — would want to avoid.

They've already laboured against two of those, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, and would thus be conscious of the fact that no opponents could be taken for granted.

That said, beating a team like Cameroon — a major rival that has, more frequently than Nigerians would like to recall, caused them to stumble at the AFCON — would no doubt boost the Super Eagles’ morale, and there could be more to come if they can sustain their elevated levels.

Peseiro rightly remarked after the game that “all the teams at this stage are capable of winning the tournament”.

Nigeria are certainly in that bracket.

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Godfred Budu

Godfred Budu is a purpose-driven Ghanaian sports writer with a sharp eye for excellence. He has had stints with and He loves to talk and write about football on the African continent.