By Victor Okoye
Two regions on the African continent; Nigeria and Tunisia, will battle it out for nothing but pride in the third place playoffs of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on Wednesday.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the game which kicks off at the Al-Salam Stadium in Cairo from 8.00 p.m. is a first of two West versus North duel at the ongoing 2019 AFCON in Egypt.
An open and engaging 2019 AFCON drew close to its conclusion on Sunday night, with two final teams; Senegal and Algeria left standing ahead of Wednesday’s losers final clash.
The circumstances of Nigeria and Tunisia’s late semi-final defeats in this year’s AFCON could be telling when the two tangle for one last chance to make a statement at the tournament.
Games for third place rarely seem a thrill for teams involved, although younger squad members on both sides will be hoping for a chance to shine in Cairo, while their more match-worn teammates will presumably wish they were on their next flight home.
However, there are reasons for optimism for Nigeria and Tunisia ahead of this clash, both of whom have demonstrated their qualities and their limitations in the tournament till date.
On the face of it, Tunisia are 20 places above Nigeria in the FIFA world rankings, sitting 25th, and had a slightly less agonising form of AFCON heartbreak in that they did not lose to the last kick of the game.
Nigeria, though, are the slenderest of favourites for a match in which form is likely to depart from the nearest window as both sides look to gain a semblance of closure from sapping cruel exits.
The Carthage Eagles’ late defeat to Senegal in the first semi-final could scarcely have been narrower, with both sides seeing penalties saved in normal time.
Compounding their misery after victory had seemed within their grasp, Dylan Bronn lucklessly registered a 100th-minute own-goal as goalkeeper Mouez Hassen’s save from a Sadio Mane free-kick rebounded off the defender’s head and into the net.
Tunisia also missed out on a 113th-minute penalty when an initial refereeing decision was overturned by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Still, they have been on an encouraging run of form since losing their first two fixtures at the 2018 World Cup and even then, they proved typically difficult to beat during a 2-1 opening loss to England.
Coach Alain Giresse, a former Footballer of the Year in France, had led Tunisia to just one defeat in 10 before their semi-final loss, including a win in Croatia during the build-up to this summer’s tournament.
They are resolutely hard to break down and eventually disposed of Madagascar comfortably in the quarter-finals, seeing off the tournament surprise packages by scoring three goals without reply in the second half.
All of the goals conceded by Tunisia at this year’s tournament have arrived in the final third of matches, with both of the goals scored against them in the knockout stages coming after the 90th minute.
If Tunisia’s final four match was breathless, Nigeria’s tumultuous clash with Algeria was every bit as action-packed, as well as offering a more sudden and spectacular conclusion.
As the 94th minute ticked past in Cairo, few could have foreseen even a player of Riyad Mahrez’s class producing the masterful free-kick that sent the Manchester City winger’s side into the final.
That proved the last action of the game and an unforgiving end to a campaign in which they have frequently entertained, knocking out reigning champions Cameroon 3-2 before seeing off an upwardly mobile South Africa 2-1.
Algeria have been arguably the best team in the tournament this year, but Nigeria will feel frustrated not to have held on to the parity provided by Odion Ighalo’s 72nd-minute penalty, awarded for handball following a lengthy VAR check.
That said, coach Gernot Rohr will have been vexed by the surprising lack of threat and creativity manifested by Nigeria for much of the semi-final leading up to their penalty.
Nigeria’s opponents dominated much of the encounter and hit the woodwork shortly before scoring the winner, outplaying the Super Eagles when many had thought their superior experience in the latter stages of the tournament could count for more.
Mahrez haunted them early on to force the opener, outfoxing his markers before seeing his cross diverted into the Nigeria net via the midriff of defender William Troost-Ekong, who scored their late quarter-final winner against South Africa.
Nigeria may feel they have a point to prove in the settler for bronze after an underwhelming semi-final showing that resulted in their second loss of the tournament, following up a shock group stage setback when they slumped to a 2-0 defeat against Madagascar.
They have not won by more than a single goal in any of their matches and, having kept four straight clean sheets in the build-up to that loss to Madagascar, have now conceded in four of their last five games.
Rohr was in pragmatic mood following the end of their bid to become champions, praising a squad that was the youngest at the 2018 World Cup and admitting that their tactical and technical quality will improve with age.
Part of the reason for Nigeria’s exit was their failure to cope effectively with Algeria’s high-tempo pressing approach, and that apparent lack of energy could spell the last outing of the tournament for several players this time out.
Rohr is likely to be tempted to make changes in order to enhance the experience of several of his younger talents, with the likes of Chelsea defender Kenneth Omeruo and Paderborn full-back Jamilu Collins – who was given a torrid time by Mahrez – liable to make way.
One name to watch out for could be Henry Onyekuru, the 22-year-old striker who Everton paid Belgian club Eupen 7 million pounds for in 2017, so impressed were they at his strike ratio of almost a goal every other game.
Since then, Onyekuru has continued to demonstrate his eye for goal.
He netted nine in 19 for Anderlecht in 2017 before his progress was halted by knee ligament damage, then returned last season to hit 14 goals in 31 appearances during a highly successful loan spell with Galatasaray.
Ighalo’s position as tournament top scorer looks precarious despite his gutsy penalty against Algeria.
The Shanghai Shenhua striker leads the way with four goals so far, but is just one ahead of Mahrez, Algeria teammate Adam Ounas and Senegal’s Mane, all of whom are expected to take part in Friday’s final.
Giresse could freshen up his side following their extra-time endeavours against Senegal.
Defensive midfielder Ferjani Sassi is an option should the coach opt for a more guarded approach against opponents capable of potency, while new prospects such as 18-year-old Leverkusen midfielder Marc Lamti could be brought in.
In terms of their head-to-head record, Tunisia have had marginally the better of the 17 matches they have played against Nigeria, with six wins compared to their rivals’ five.
The all-time figures would be dead level had Tunisia not won a friendly 5-0 in Tunis in 1984.
You have to look all the way back to January 2000 to find the last time this fixture did not finish all square.
Tunisia went 2-0 up inside 16 minutes when they met 19 years ago, only for Nigeria to emerge 4-2 winners in Lagos, including a brace from former Paris Saint-Germain and Bolton Wanderers favourite Jay-Jay Okocha.
Since then, the teams have traded penalty shootout triumphs after 1-1 draws – Tunisia winning 5-3 in the AFCON 2004 semi-finals, Nigeria 6-5 in the 2006 quarter-finals.
Almost 10 years ago, their last meetings produced no goals in Tunis and a 2-2 draw in Abuja as part of a qualifying campaign that saw Nigeria reach the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Tunisia’s win more than 15 years ago is their sole AFCON victory in this fixture. Nigeria have won three of the six matches between these teams in the tournament, beginning with a 2-1 win in November 1961.
There was an extraordinary conclusion when these two last met to decide third place.
With the score level at 1-1, Tunisia walked off the pitch after 42 minutes in Accra in March 1978, leading officials to award Nigeria a 2-0 win and ban their opponents from the next tournament.
With the domestic season fast approaching and the bitter taste of those semi-final defeats lingering, the already anti-climatic air of a third-place playoff is unlikely to cause either side to fly out of the traps at the Al Salam Stadium.
These games have historically been close-run and Tunisia are demonstrably capable of nullifying Nigeria’s attack.
The mystery lies in how many younger players, spared some of the demotivating effects of losing a knockout game, will perform should they be given the chance.
Neither side will want to prolong their stay at a tournament they cannot win, so it could become a case of who cares more about their final act in the shadows of finalists Algeria and Senegal.
The African continent eagerly waits in anticipation to see who wins the first of a West versus North duel in the 2019 AFCON at the Al-Salam Stadium in Cairo on Wednesday. (NAN)