Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations dream turned to a nightmare on Sunday evening when they were beaten 1-0 by Tunisia in a round of 16 clash at the Roumde Adjia Stadium in Garoua.
The Super Eagles were clear favourites heading into this game against a Cartages Eagles team which had lost two of their group stage matches and were hit by several Covid-19 absences, but a surprise long-range strike early in the second half from Youssef Msakni, as well as a red card for Alex Iwobi, tipped the tie in favour of the North Africans.
Tunisia will next face Burkina Faso in the quarterfinals on Saturday 29 January.
The first clear chance of the match went the way of Tunisia in the 10th minute, with fine work down the right flank from Hamza Rafia setting up Msakni, but he saw his goal-bound effort blocked by Kenneth Omeruo.
Nigeria then enjoyed a spell of dominance in which Samuel Chukwueze, Moses Simon and Kelechi Iheanacho were prominent figures. However, Tunisia goalkeeper Bechir Ben Said remained untested, with his defence doing well to ensure the Super Eagles attackers had little time or space to weave their magic in dangerous areas.
The Cartage Eagles, meanwhile, struggled to bring Msakni and Seifeddine Jaziri into play at the other end, but on the whole they would have been happy with their work in the first half, frustrating Nigeria and ensuring the game was locked at 0-0 at the interval.
And the North Africans struck the first key blow just two minutes after the restart, with Msakni not closed down by the defence and allowed to fire off a swerving shot from long range which skidded off the turf and burst past the left hand of goalkeeper Maduka Okoye for 1-0.
Nigeria responded on the hour mark with a pair of substitutions, sending on Alex Iwobi and Peter Olayinka, but it was starter Wilfred Ndidi who looked to come up with an equaliser soon thereafter, firing a long range shot just over the target.
However, the Super Eagles’ hopes of a comeback were soon dealt a major blow when Iwobi was sent off in the 64th minute for a studs-up challenge on Msakni. Referee Maguette N’Diaye of Senegal initially only cautioned the substitute, but upon reviewing the incident at VAR’s request, he rescinded the yellow card and instead brandished a straight red.
Ironically, after going down to 10 men, Nigeria’s attack began to look more dangerous, with Simon and Chukwueze both sending shots just off target in the minutes after Iwobi’s dismissal.
Yet the 10-man team inevitably began to be stretched at the back and Okoye was called on to make an excellent save from Tunisian substitute Naim Sliti with 15 minutes of regulation time left to play.
Tunisia were able to see out the remainder of the match in relative comfort, with Nigeria’s only chance a shot from a tight angle by substitute Umar Sadiq which rolled narrowly wide of the mark in the first minute of injury time.
Tunisia will go on to face Burkina Faso in a quarterfinal in Garoua on Saturday 29 January.
Tunisia (0) 1 (Msakni 47’)
Nigeria: Okoye, Aina, Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Zaidu, Ndidi, Aribo (Musa 89’), Simon, Iheanacho (Iwobi 60’), Chukwueze (Sadiq 75’), Awoniyi (Olayinka 60’)
Tunisia: Ben Said, Drager, Ifa, Talbi, Haddadi, Slimane (Rekik 90+5’), Skhiri, Laidouni, Msakni (Khazri 86’), Rafia (Sliti 69’), Jaziri (Jerbali 86’)