What have we learned from Nigeria’s run to the AWCON final?
A penalty shootout win took Nigeria past Cameroon in Tuesday’s Africa Women Cup of Nations as the Super Falcons continued their domination of the tournament showpiece.
Given the sorry state of their preparations over the last two years, it is perhaps something of a minor miracle that they have reached this point.
However, Nigerian fans, spoiled by the halcyon days of the Super Falcons blowing away everything in their path, are having none of that, suggesting that other countries have closed the gap on a stagnant Super Falcons team.
However, is that really the case? Here are ESPN’s observations from the national side’s run to the final.
Nigeria maintain penalty record
This was only the second occasion when the Super Falcons have required penalties to progress in a major senior tournament.
Back in 2004, they defeated Ghana on penalties in Accra during the qualifiers for the 2004 Olympics following a 2-2 aggregate double-header.
The Black Queens were 2-0 up after the first four kicks across both teams, but Nigeria scored their next three while the hosts missed theirs.
They subsequently qualified for the tournament in Athens after defeating South Africa.
Things were more straightforward on Tuesday, and Nigeria won’t be fazed should they need penalties to get their hands on the title.
Has the gap closed?
Now to that closing gap.
It came as something fo a shock to the vast majority when Banyana Banayana claimed a 1-0 win over the Super Falcons in their opening game of the tournament.
It’s not that the Falcons had never lost in the group stage before – Ghana beat them 1-0 in 2002 in Warri, nor have they never been beaten by Banyana before, having fallen to them in the 2012 semis.
However, this was their first ever opening-day loss, and it did not go down well. The team looked jaded, uncoordinated and out of sorts.
Still, they were one blinding Desire Oparanozie miss away from taking control of things in the first half. So has the gap closed?
In truth, perhaps the gap was never so big at all.
That 2002 victory for South Africa could have come two years earlier when the Falcons won a final against Banyana in Soweto, with the match ending in violence.
In 2011, the team failed to qualify for the All-Africa Games, the first time they had ever failed to qualify for a tournament.
Soon after, they were eliminated by Cameroon in the 2012 Olympic qualifiers.
The gap has surely been steadily shrinking, at least among the top four, but Nigerians have always kept their noses in front, mostly due to their quality and self belief.
However, they shot themselves in the foot this year with their abysmal lack of preparation for this tournament.
This is perhaps the best way to explain the defeat by Banyana and the close shave against Cameroon.
However, the fact that both countries still only stretched Nigeria rather than dominate the contest, is evidence that if the Falcons are on their game, they still should be the continent’s strongest side.
To reach the final without playing anything but one significant friendly games of note in two years, and having barely any time together, is an indictment on the rest of the continent.
Zambia and Equatorial Guinea were dispatched with ease.
Cameroon barely created any chances of note, and South Africa took advantage of a late lapse in concentration to grab a winner. They could have been trailing early on but for Oparanozie’s lack of sharpness.
Dennerby gradually gets the best out of his players
In the opening game, Thomas Dennerby went full frontal, with Oparanozie, Asisat Oshoala, Rasheedat Ajibade and Francisca Ordega all starting for the Falcons.
That is a top-heavy strikeforce if ever there was one, suggesting that the coach was uncertain of his best team, or how they play and was looking to use brute force on Banyana Banyana.
It almost worked. Almost.
That selection meant he sacrificed Ngozi Okobi, keeping her on the bench, which left Rita Chikwelu all but isolated in midfield.
Okobi’s introduction stabilised the midfield and she has been a starter since.
In defence, he also traded the current form of Josephine Chukwunonye for the experience of Faith Michael. Injury to Faith meant Chukwunonye has now become one of the team’s bulwarks.
This trial-and-error coaching begs the question of whether Maureen Mmadu, who played for the Falcons and is now assistant to Dennerby, has any say in the coaching decisions, or if her contributions are being overridden.
Mmadu, despite being the designated first assistant, has been banished to the stands during games after her name was left off the list of officials to sit on the bench.
Whatever the reasons, it is an injustice that needs correcting if Dennerby is to get a handle on his team.