Nigeria and Cameroon met in the last 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations, with both sides harbouring realistic hopes of reaching the quarter-finals. Both sides finished second in their respective groups, with Nigeria securing two wins and a defeat (against Madagascar in the first match) while Cameroon came out victorious against Guinea-Bissau and drew their other two matches.
Cameroon made three changes from their last fixture against Benin, with N’Jie, Bassogog and Mandjeck coming into the side in place of, Djoum, Ekambi and Anguissa. Nigeria brought in Akpeyi in place of Ezenwa in goal, while Omeruo replaced Balogun at centre back. Ogu, Kalu and Mikel also found themselves on the substitutes bench with Ndidi, Simon and Iwobi replacing them in the starting 11.
Cameroon’s build up
Cameroon set up with a back three in this match, having rotated between a back three and four throughout the tournament. Cameroon were keen to work the ball out from defensive areas, making the most of Andre Onana’s impressive work with the ball at his feet. When regaining the ball in the defensive third the centre backs looked to play the ball to Onana, to prevent Nigeria from being able to counterattack.
The positioning of the Cameroon midfielders caused issues in the build-up play as they would often be found too close to the centre backs. This allowed Nigeria to cover the passes into them with Ighalo screening and two central midfielders pushing close to them.
Nigeria’s defensive shape
Nigeria were very compact vertically, which closed the spaces for players to receive the ball between the lines. They operated out of a 4-3-3 shape with Ndidi, Etebo and Iwobi as the central three midfielders. The Cameroon centre backs were reluctant to dribble with the ball to commit one of the Nigerians out of position. This made it very difficult for them to advance the ball effectively as they often passed the ball between the back three before playing a longer hopeful pass.
N’Jie’s change of position
N’Jie started the match playing as the central striker and struggled to make an impact on the game. Due to Cameroon’s inability to build up play through the thirds, they resorted to long balls which he isn’t best suited to win. The Cameroon manager, Clarence Seedorf, made the change and moved N’Jie out to the right-hand side of the pitch with Bahoken moving into the central position. This provided a focal point for their attacks and enabled them to secure possession and build the play in advanced areas of the pitch.
Cameroon turned the game on its head with two goals in the space of three minutes. The first goal came as a result of Cameroon finally being able to get a pass through to one of their players positioned between the lines. Oyongo was able to play the ball forwards into a Choupo-Moting, who had dropped to receive between the Nigerian defence and midfield. With lots of time and space, he was able to turn and play the ball into Bassogog who took advantage of the space created by the run of Bahoken. His cross into the box was finished first time by Bahoken to draw Cameroon level.
Their second came from a long ball from Banana, resulting from a lack of support around him once again. This time, however, the aerial ball was won by Bahoken, who was able to flick it into the path of N’Jie, who had read the potential flick on. He timed his run into space perfectly, outmuscling Aina, before sitting Akpeyi in the Nigeria goal on the floor and side-footing the ball into the net.
Nigeria surprise Cameroon
Having spent the majority of the match up to the 66th minute allowing Cameroon to build possession from defensive while sitting off, Nigeria decided to apply a high press. Started by Ighalo on the halfway line, the ball was forced back towards the Cameroon goal. Ighalo arced his run to prevent any forward passes and Iwobi cut off the pass to the left centre back. this left Banana as the only option apart from Onana to pass the ball to. Etebo then jumped forward a line as the ball was passed to Banana. As the pace of the pass was underhit this allowed Etebo to each Banana, who attempted to play a pass down the line. Musa read his intention and intercepted the ball before feeding Ighalo; one pass later and the ball was in the Cameroon goal with the game turned on its head.
Nigeria sit in
After going 3-2 up, Nigeria adapted their shape and played a more conservative 4-1-4-1 shape with Ndidi playing as the deepest of the midfielders. This created a compact three in central areas which enabled Nigeria to prevent Cameroon from advancing through the centre of the pitch. Ndidi concerned himself with preventing passes into Choupo-Moting, who was positioning himself centrally, looking to receive passes from the defenders. Ndidi using his cover shadow was able to screen passes into him while providing support to press should either Iwobi or Etebo be beaten in midfield.
When Nigeria won possession they looked to counterattack immediately to exploit the spaces that Cameroon were leaving in search of an equaliser. In Musa, Ighalo and Chukwueze, Nigeria had players that could attack the space with speed.
In what was expected to be a tight cagey affair both sides produced an attacking display that highlighted the weaknesses in both sides defensively. Neither sides centre backs looked convincing, with rushed clearances and a lack of composure on the ball it helped to contribute to a largely chaotic game. Despite the fact both sides showed attacking intent the game lacked a level of quality with both sides struggling to exert any real control over the match.
In the end, it was Nigeria who emerged victorious amidst the chaos to reach the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations. They will be hoping to maintain their attacking threat while becoming defensively secure, a balance which has alluded them so far in the tournament.