Only a few hours ago, Nigeria took all three points against underdogs Burundi in a hotly contested match at Alexandria Stadium in Egypt.
Olivier Niyungeko’s players kept the Super Eagles from succeeding in front of goal until a 77th-minute poacher’s effort by Odion Ighalo. While Nigeria were expected to beat Burundi without batting an eye, the reality was certainly different.
While Burundi remain debutants in this competition, they have proven that they cannot be tossed aside easily.
The Eagles found it difficult putting the ball in the net and faltered consistently in the final third. Burundi’s defence kept Nigeria at bay almost throughout the game and they deserve the credit for losing by only one goal.
However, the best player for Burundi was Gael Bigirimana who helped his team stabilize the middle of the park with accurate passes and key deliveries into the final third.
Nigeria, on the other hand, had poor composure and an inefficient attack throughout the game.
This was largely due to John Mikel Obi who couldn’t keep up with the synergy of his younger, excited teammates although he played a pivotal position in the attacking midfield.
Ahmed Musa, who came on for Obi, improved the team’s speed and urgency with his pacey runs and agility.
Nigeria may have taken home three points, but they haven’t taken the solid goal difference they would have hoped for.
Burundi are clear underdogs who, with a bit more luck, could have beat the three-time champions of Africa.
Let us now take a look at five important points in the hotly contested Nigeria vs Burundi match.
#1 The experienced Nigerian players clearly underperformed
The experience that comes with age is very beneficial. However, when it comes to football, raw talent, youthful exuberance, and a determination to win can be other factors that can trounce experience on a good day.
Taking a deeper look at the Nigerian team Gernot Rohr fielded against Burundi shows us just how true this is.
The only player over the age of 28 that had a reasonable outing was a composed Odion Ighalo who scored the only goal of the game. The experienced players, in general, held the team back or made things difficult for their teammates.
Super Eagles veteran Mikel Obi underwhelmed in every way. He was neither an effective No. 10 in the traditional role nor in the modern improved role.
With a passing accuracy of 74% and only one key pass, Mikel did not do justice to his position. After 57 minutes, the coach had had enough and replaced him.
32-year-old goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi might have made some saves to keep Nigeria in the game, but those do not exclude his obvious blunders.
He didn’t look confident, dropped across late in the game, and unnecessarily gifted Burundi a corner.
Even 30-year-old Ighalo who scored the winner made only 9 touches after coming on in the 72nd minute.
#2 Burundi are not weak underdogs
It was supposed to be a breeze in the park for the men in green. Yet, the Swallows gave the Super Eagles a rather tough time, and Nigeria gaffer Gernot Rohr said as much in a post-match interview:
“It was a very difficult match for us because this team of Burundi is very organised…
“It was not easy, especially very difficult to score the first goal. If the first goal is not coming quickly, you suffer and you have to work hard to score and to win the matches.”
The gaffer was quite right. The Eagles started the game with a clear attacking mindset, keeping possession, pressuring Burundi’s defence heavily, and looking for an immediate goal. For the first thirty minutes, Nigeria held on to the ball almost totally.
However, as the half neared to a close, the Burundi team seemed to pick up some determination and make better use of their opportunities with the ball.
By the 70th minute, Burundi was keeping the ball better, finding channels through the midfield, and creating chances in front of goal. In the last 10 minutes of the game, Burundi kept 60% of the possession and maintained strong pressure on the Nigerian defence, forcing Eagles keeper Akpeyi to mishandle a cross late in the game.
Burundi may not even pass the group stage in this AFCON edition, but it would be detrimental to the other teams in Group B to go into a match against these underdogs without strong determination.
#3 Ola Aina is an absolute gem of a player
The former Chelsea starlet has been a revelation for Gernot Rohr, especially after a strong man-of-the-match performance against Burundi. He covered attack and defence in a Marcelo-type manner and single-handedly gave Nigeria a reason to celebrate.
Defensively, he made the most interceptions for Nigeria, alongside 4 clearances and 2 tackles. In the attack, Aina got 98 touches, 18 more than any other person on the entire field, and drove his team forward on the left wing. Apart from that, he contributed with 2 key passes, 4 crosses, and an 85% pass accuracy.
He was eventually rewarded with a world-class assist that he backheeled into the path of Ighalo who masterfully placed it past the keeper and into the net. Based on today’s game and Aina’s recent form, Rohr has almost certainly found a permanent player for the position of left-back in the national squad.
#4 Inaccuracy from the Super Eagles’ wings
Both Alex Iwobi and Samuel Chukwueze are notable bright stars who ply their trade in the Premier League and the La Liga respectively.
They brought life to the game from the first whistle, showcased their raw talents, and took on defenders with clear confidence. While they were pacy and looking for every opportunity to send the ball past the keeper, they were unable to make it count with their shots.
Iwobi and Chukwueze completed a combined 10 dribbles, but while having a combined 5 shots at goal, they had a combined zero on target. This would be, if nothing else, appalling for the Super Eagles gaffer.
Chukwueze was taking on players, fighting doggedly, and double-teamed constantly. He was a serious thorn in the Swallows’ defence, but he flopped his biggest opportunity of the night to put Nigeria in the lead. Iwobi’s deliveries were more technical and refined. Playing through the defence with 3 key passes showed how effective Iwobi was in the game. However, his inaccuracy in front of goal dented his day.
#5 Gael Bigirimana successfully held his Burundi midfield together
While the Super Eagles eventually scored a goal and secured a much needed three points, enough credit should be given to Bigirimana who kept the underdogs in the game.
For much of the first half, Burundi struggled to find rhythm. It wasn’t until the second half that things picked up on their end, and even though conceding a goal marred their performance, they had a good game.
Bigirimana helped his team’s defence with 3 clearances and 2 interceptions. He made the most of the attack by contributing 41 passes and 8 crosses. His efforts were noticeable, and he was certainly the best player for Burundi.
The team would need to rally around Bigirimana for the remaining 2 games if they are to have any chances of getting past the group stage.