Vengeful Lionesses Tamed and Nigeria's 'La Decima' Quest Continues

Saturday 16 July 2022

/ by Colin Udoh

It was meant to be a belle party experience but turned out a gritty, feisty feast of stop-starts in, perhaps, the most-anticipated clash of the Morocco 2022 CAF Women's African Cup of Nations.

A well-recycled ball by Gotham FC's Ifeoma Onumonu was plunged into the back of the Cameroonian net with Ange Bawou caught napping on her near side by a perfectly placed header from the blue-haired Rasheedat Ajibade, and that was all she wrote as the champions, Nigeria women's national team continued the defence of the title last won on Ghanaian soil four years ago.

The win takes the Super Falcons into the semis where they will play against a Moroccan side that has earned the right to be tagged a formidable opponent.

Before Monday's semifinal showdown with the host, let's check out some of the talking points from the 1-0 win of Nigeria over the Indomitable Lionesses.

Rasheedat Ajibade, a Contender for the MVP 

This is becoming her tournament, and oh my, she's wearing every game like a well-made dinner dress.

Her goal, from the team's only shot on target on the night, is why Nigeria will play Down Under next year when Australia and New Zealand host the FIFA Women's World Cup.

Called RASH, the Atletico de Madrid player has come through the ranks from the juvenile levels to becoming a mainstay in the best team on the continent. 

Although she's won the WAFCON, a 2018 feat, she's definitely hungry for more and that shows in every game she's played in in Morocco.

The 22-year-old gave a WOTM performance against Cameroon with her tenacious contributions across the forward line, and throughout this competition has been a tricky customer for her markers. 

With three goals and two assists, she's the lead scorer of this tourney alongside Morocco's captain, Ghizlane Chebbak, who has two WOTM awards to her name. Both will face off on Monday and their individual performances will surely be an exciting sub-plot of the battle ahead.

Super Falcons Must Make the Most of Set Plays

Times have changed. Big scorelines have thinned out. Women's football has grown and the days when the Falcons handed out heavy defeats to their opponents are long gone. But the team boasts of quality, grounded players that will always trouble oppositions. They'll always create chances and force teams to commit corners and free kicks in dangerous areas. So, they must readapt to taking advantage of these set pieces.

Aside from the penalty kick goal by Ajibade against Burundi and a Christy Ucheibe hearder off a corner, Nigeria has had a plethora of these opportunities but failed to turn a lot into goals.

Eight goals in four games make for an average of two per game. Not a bad return in these times but can be much better if set plays are harnessed. 

Who Won the Battle of the Midfield?

My post match tag for this game is Battle of the Midfield. And neither Cameroon nor Nigeria won. This rivalry historically dates back to when this championship started in 1991. It has metamorphosed into a tight and conservative contest. This particular one was hard sore, draining and left the players leaving their hearts on the field. Didn't expect less as there were so much at stake.

Cameroon's five-person midfield set-up and three for their West African foes made the encounter not pretty for viewing, had plenty of play disruptions, aerial and ground duels ended in fouls and cautions. No way this game could have produced more than a goal.

Matter of fact, it took a moment of sweet dribbling skill from Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene, out-of-position precise cross from Onumonu and a well-struck header by Ajibade for both teams to be separated by the odd margin. Other than that, this fixture was destined for a penalty shootout. 

#GoingFor10 Alive and Running

It's been an arduous journey so far for the African champions. They've played Africa's top teams - Ghana and Cote d'Ivore in the qualifiers, South Africa and Cameroon at the tournament. A few bumps here and there but 'La Decima' dream is still hale and hearty.

Nigeria went into Morocco 2022 on the back of a social media campaign #GoingFor10, asking for support as they bid to win a 10th WAFCON crown. 

As the final whistle blew and history repeated, Nigeria sealed a ninth consecutive ticket to the FIFA WWC. At the end of this championship, this might be the sweetest achievement for Nigeria considering the fact that they are Africa's best and have another chance to equalling their best outing at the World Cup - a quarterfinal in 1999 - or do better.

The team's third oldest player in Morocco at 34, Rita Chikwelu, winner of two African titles, couldn't hold back tears with the Nigerian flag on her shoulders after the win against Cameroon. Going to the World Cup next year could be her swan song to wrap up a decorated career that started in 2007. 

Kudos to Cameroon; WC Hope Still Alive

“We will do everything to win this match” was what Cameroon coach, Gabriel Zabo said before the game. And he did have a plan to make that happen - resolute defending, stiffle the Nigerians when in possession and hit them on the transition. 

Led by Estelle Johnson in the defence, the Lionesses limited the Falcons to just one shot on target (proved to be the difference though) and just four corners. Nigeria's frontline personnel were reduced to constantly changing positions due to Cameroon's great man-marking capacity.

The journey back home will be a long, reflective one but this effort in futility doesn't mean they're out of the chase for a world cup ticket. There's a glimmer of hope - a playoff match and a path to the FIFA WWC through the extended playoff process.

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