Brisbane Stadium erupted with loud cheers and jeers after Emily Van Egmond — who started in place of the injured Mary Fowler — cooly slotted in a crisp cross from Caitlin Foord to put the Matildas ahead in what was a pacy and highly tactical game. Those cheers quickly shriveled into a deafening silence after an unmarked Uchenna Kanu buried her chance to level the playing field for the Super Falcons of Nigeria.
Last time the two sides faced each other was in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, and it turned out to be a Kyah Pam Simon showdown after she scored a brace against Nigeria.
Into both team’s strategies
The Nigerians entered this game with the mindset to “control the game, be much more clinical offensively,” as head coach Randy Waldrum said in their pre-game presser. Defensively, they wanted to avoid conceding goals and the focal objective was to get all three points.
Both teams entered the game with a robust offensive strategy with both coaches going with the 4-1-2-3 approach. In the early stages of the game, the odds were tipped favorably for the Matildas as Kyra Cooney-Cross, Hayley Raso, Van Egmond and Foord combined to torment the Nigerian backline.
However, Nigerian standouts Ashleigh Plumptre and Michelle Alozie unabatedly kept Raso and Vine in check.
Foord proved to be a difficult task for Osinachi Ohale with how subtly she moved in the Nigerian box to create chances. Ohale was up for the task and kept her from finding the back of the net.
The Nigerian offensive play was orchestrated most times by Sevilla FC’s attacking midfielder Toni Payne. Her blistering fast-paced runs, combined with Rasheedat Ajibade and Kanu’s lethal eye for goal, gave Alanna Kennedy and Ellie Carpenter a big mess to clean up.
However, the Australians knew what was at stake and never relented in the second half. They kept mounting the pressure on the Nigerian defense, but goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie could not be fazed and kept the ball from entering the net.
The return of Rasheedt Ajibade to the squad, after facing suspension for her red card in last year’s Women’s African Cup of Nations, was palpable. Her darting runs on the left flank were Carpenter’s headache to keep at bay, but she could only do so much.
The introduction of Asisat Oshoala in the second half changed Nigeria’s outlook. With the Falcons’ confidence off the charts, the second goal which turned the whole game around came out of Ohale’s header but at a gut-wrenching cost. In a bid to remove the threat, Kennedy ended up kicking Ohale’s gut — a tackle that made it difficult for her to breathe, she admitted after the game.
Oshoala left the 49,156 fans in Brisbane dumbstruck after she capitalized on an Australian blunder to make it 3-1. Kennedy, again, was at the scene and could do little to prevent Oshoala’s acute-angle finish. However, in the dying minutes of the game, Kennedy atoned for her blunders after knocking in a powerful header to grab a consolation for the Australians. Time was not on their side to find the magic equalizer and the Super Falcons recorded their fifth win in a FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Will History Repeat itself in Consecutive Fashion?
The Super Falcons have been the most consistent African nation at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, participating in all nine editions. Their glorious triumphs in WAFCON, which doubles as FIFAWWC qualifier, hardly continues at the global stage.
The first time they qualified for the knockout stages was in 1999, with the legendary Nkiru Doris and Mercy Joy Akide Udoh leading the charge. The Falcons trounced North Korea and Denmark in Group A to qualify for the quarterfinal.
They stunned the world when they gave Brazil a run for their money in that quarterfinal clash, but had to settle for a defeat after Sissi found the back of the net in the 104th minute in extra time. It ended 4-3 in favor of Brazil but the Nigerians bowed out with their heads held high and their dignity unabated. In the next four editions, the next generation of footballers tried to replicate the 1999 feat, but they all fell in the group stages.
Two decades later, they cracked the code during the 2019 FIFA Women’s Word Cup in France on a wild card. They qualified for the Round of 16, under the leadership of 25-year-old Desire Oparanozie at the time. This was after they won their Group A match against South Korea, 2-0, which was enough to sail Nigeria through to the next stage of the competition. Ultimately, Germany mauled the Super Falcons in a 3-0 loss.
Fast forward to 2023. Nigeria sit atop the Group B table with four points on goal difference with Canada. Looking at their statistics in previous World Cup tournaments, a third-place finish in Group B at best would have been the most feasible prediction. However, they held 10th-ranked Canada to a scoreless draw at the Melbourne Stadium with Nnadozie denying legendary Canadian forward Christine Sinclair’s penalty, making major headlines and talking points.
Coming into the World Cup disheveled by the altercation between Waldrum and the Nigerian Football Federation, poor performance at the World Cup would have been forgiven. But, against all odds, Nigeria stunned Australia and this confidence boost will be needed against Ireland, who will be looking for ‘Irish luck’ to make their people proud as they bow out. Ireland was officially eliminated against Canada in the second group stage clash.
Out of the five times they have been in a group with the host nation, the Super Falcons have qualified for the knockout stages twice — during the 1999 and 2019 World Cups where they were drawn into the same groups with host nations United States and France, respectively.
For this 2023 World Cup, they are currently in the same group with co-host, Australia and could be able to replicate their feat in 2019, but this time in grand style as they aim to finish top or second in the group, which would be the first time that will happen in the team’s history since 1999.
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