Nigeria claim AFCON bronze over Tunisia as Rohr makes Super Eagles history
Nigeria established themselves as the masters of the Africa Cup of Nations bronze-medal match, beating Tunisia 1-0 to claim their eighth third-place medal after Odion Ighalo poked home from close range.
They also kept a clean sheet for only the third time in the tournament, something that will please Gernot Rohr. But there was something else to please the German, who set a record as the first Nigeria coach to use all 23 squad players in a tournament. That, and other takeaways from the game.
Rohr sets the record
When Henry Onyekuru came on as a substitute for Samuel Chukwueze in the semifinal vs. Algeria, there were only two players left who had not seen action for Nigeria at this tournament, and Rohr made it clear that both would yet do so.
"I know myself what it means for a player to go to a tournament and not play, and it will be a good record for us if every player is to play," the German said at his pre-match news conference.
He did not disappoint. Francis Uzoho, who has dropped down the pecking order from first-choice to third-choice goalkeeper, saw himself starting for the first time since that final qualifier against Seychelles where his bloopers gifted the islanders a goal.
That made forward Victor Osimhen the only player left who had yet to taste action. Although he was scheduled to come on, an unfortunate injury to Ighalo hastened that decision.
It meant Rohr got the record he was aiming for. The closest Nigeria have come to that was at the 1992 Cup of Nations in Senegal, when all but the two reserve goalkeepers were used.
While it may not sound like much, it is a credit to the depth of the team that the German has built that every single piece can come in and do a job without a significant drop in quality.
Uzoho offers fresh hope
Uzoho's grass-to-grace-and-then-grass story looks like it is heading back to grace.
That Seychelles error proved a devastating setback for his international career as he saw himself relegated to third choice behind Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa. That state of affairs would most probably have continued if Ezenwa did not suffer the misfortune of conceding twice against Madagascar, and Akpeyi's indecisiveness wasn't causing palpitations for more than 180 million people.
On his return however, Uzoho showed exactly why Rohr plucked him from obscurity to man the posts for Nigeria. He was commanding, controlled his area, snapped up aerial balls like low-hanging fruit and showed great confidence in his own abilities. It is exactly the sort of confident assurance the Super Eagles defence has been crying out for all tournament long.
Rohr let slip that part of the reason why he didn't pick Uzoho was because he did not play enough for his club. Perhaps it is time to revise that criterion -- at least, based on the state of the goalkeeping situation.
Ighalo grows his legend
Ighalo's tournament finished as a tale of sadness and joy. His goal after three minutes set the Super Eagles on their way to victory. It also extended his lead at the top of the scoring chart by two goals, ahead of the trio of Riyadh Mahrez, Adam Ounas and Sadio Mane. Unless those three can score two or more in the final, Ighalo could well run away with the Golden Boot. This will add to the seven with which he claimed the honours in qualifying and of course add to his legend, despite the criticism he has had to endure.
Sadly for the forward, who was scheduled to fly out to China immediately after the game, he pulled his hamstring after a tackle late in the first half, and had to call for his own substitution. It was a sad end to a more than rewarding tournament for the Nigeria striker.