The Super Eagles built on their encouraging performance against Equatorial Guinea in their opening group game of the tournament, known officially as AFCON 2023, and, this time, they made it count.
Jose Peseiro had maintained that his side were ‘unlucky' in their 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea last Sunday, 14 January, after they wasted a flurry of chances.
On Thursday, 18 January, at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, Nigeria were once again not clinical enough in front of goal, with Victor Osimhen, Ademola Lookman and Samuel Chukwueze all missing some great opportunities.
However, the Super Eagles found a breakthrough in the second half via a penalty, with captain William Troost-Ekong smashing the ball down the middle after Osimhen had been fouled in the box.
Peseiro’s Super Eagles gamble pays off
Although Nigeria were underdogs going into the game, they were by far the better side against the Ivory Coast and subdued the threat posed by the hosts for large spells.
On the few occasions that the Elephants tested goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali, it was often through long-range shots. But to acknowledge Nigeria’s superiority on the day would be to also give Peseiro his flowers.
The Portuguese had his decisions spot on right from the starting line-up. With Alhassan Yusuf unavailable due to injury and the Super Eagles lacking options of a similar profile due to how thin they are in midfield, Peseiro abandoned his hitherto trusted 4-3-3 formation for 3-4-3.
Although the switch in formation was a gamble, it paid off and Nigeria were not only effective but also very assured in possession.
For a side that hadn’t won any of its previous four matches heading into the game against Ivory Coast, the Super Eagles surprisingly thrived under Peseiro’s new setup and the system seemed to have brought out the best in every player.
Nigeria at their most resolute in defence under Peseiro
The trio of Calvin Bassey, Troost-Ekong and Semi Ajayi kept it compact at the back and were shielded by the midfield pair of Alex Iwobi and Frank Onyeka.
Peseiro’s decision to play Zaidu Sanusi and Ola Aina as wing-backs also proved shrewd, as both offered width and stability. Aina, particularly, enjoyed one of his best games in a Nigerian shirt with his tireless contributions in defence and attack.
Then there was the professional performance by the wingers, Chukwueze and Lookman, both of whom operated in the half-spaces and tucked in rather than staying out wide and waiting to be fed the ball.
This helped Nigeria to exploit Ivory Coast’s flat defense, with the wingers tucking in to link up with Osimhen. Indeed, it was one of such quick interplays from the left that led to the Super Eagles’ penalty.
Peseiro had his tactics right and his plan worked to perfection against Ivory Coast, ensuring one of Nigeria’s most resolute defensive performances in a long time.
In the aftermath of the game, the Super Eagles boss told CAF Online that he used “a strategy that worked” and called on his players to be braver in subsequent games.
“For the next match we have to control the game, try to be less timid and not give possession to the opponent, I told my players not to savour the victory. We have four days left before the next match. From day one I told them: ‘you must win the AFCON’,” Peseiro said.
It seems like Peseiro might just have stumbled on a system that works and brings out the best in the material at his disposal.
Now the real test will be how he’s able to make such a performance the norm rather than a one-off as the Super Eagles chase their fourth AFCON title.