Missing Salah: Four Takeaways as Liverpool Star Loses AFCON Opener

Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho scored the only goal of the game as Nigeria eased  past Mohamed Salah’s Egypt in their AFCON 2021 game on Monday night.

The Super Eagles dominated the Group D opener, with Iheanacho’s 30th minute strike handing Egypt a major blow on a day where Salah failed to make an impact in the course of 90 minutes.

It was a positive start for interim-manager Augustine Eguavoen and we take a look at the major talking points post-game.

Salah Went Missing

Most of the pre-match talk was all about Mohamed Salah and how he would wreck havoc on the Super Eagles defense. Rightly so, the Liverpool talisman is indeed one of the most in-form players in world football at the moment and it was hard to see how a faltering Nigerian defense would keep him quiet. However, it was an unexpected story at the Roumdé Adjia Stadium.

Salah failed to impose himself on the game and even struggled to do anything of note. The 3-4-3 system adopted by Carlos Queiroz played well into the hands of the Nigerians as Salah was deployed centrally, rather than his preferred spot on the flanks.

Since his debut in the competition in 2017, Salah has been directly involved in 60% of Egypt’s goals in the Africa Cup of Nations and keeping him quiet was a key factor in how the game eventually turned out.

Rock-Solid Defense for the Super Eagles

Under former manager Gernot Rohr, Nigeria were characteristic of making needless errors in defense and the Super Eagles always struggled to keep clean sheets against any worthy opposition. Taking on an Egyptian side unbeaten in each of their last 16 group matches at the Africa Cup of Nations, what were the chances of keeping the North Africans at bay?

Against all odds, all members of the Super Eagles defense were top solid, with Ola Aina and Troost-Ekong the standout performers against Egypt. Three points is good enough but a clean-sheet against Salah and company is indeed something praise-worthy.

Eguavoen Got His Tactics Right

A recurring-issue ex-manager Gernot Rohr failed to address was giving the Super Eagles an identity. Nigeria have long lacked a style of play or system to work with. Many were skeptical about interim-manager Eguavoen and how he would exactly approach the game. Against Egypt, his decisions were well-timed and the tactics deployed seemed to neutralize the North African side a great deal.

It will be fool-hardy to wax lyrical over one game but the early signs have looked promising so far.

Awoniyi Starts on a Good Note

The in-form Union Berlin striker continued his upward curve on his full debut as he came into difficult circumstances without the team’s regular forwards.

Awoniyi led the line well and harried the Egyptian back-three, having seen his shot saved from a tight angle. The 24-year-old was able to depend on his strike-partnership with Kelechi Iheanacho forged during their 2013 U-17 World Cup days as they linked up admirably.

The forward has taken massive strides concerning his role as the team’s first choice striker at AFCON 2021 and if just his second cap is anything to go by, a maiden international goal is right around the corner for Awoniyi.