Inexperience and mistakes cost young Nigerian side

Algeria's forward Riyad Mahrez (R) scores from a free-kick during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Semi-final between Algeria and Nigeria at the Cairo International stadium (AFP Photo)

On the eve of Nigeria's Africa Cup of Nations semi-final against Algeria, defender Kenneth Omeruo warned his teammates not to give away free kicks on the edge of the penalty area.

Four minutes into stoppage time of Sunday's match, with the score at 1-1 and Nigeria looking in better shape to face extra-time, they did exactly that, giving Riyad Mahrez a pot at goal from his favourite position just to the right of the centre.

There was a sense of inevitability as the winger curled the ball around the wall and into the net to give Algeria a 2-1 win and end Nigeria's dream of a fourth title.

Throughout the tournament, Nigeria's inexperienced team have been plagued by individual mistakes and carelessness.

They nearly gifted minnows Burundi the lead in their opening match lost their final group game to Madagascar 2-0 after an awful mix-up in their defence gave their opponents an early goal and had to come from behind to beat Cameroon after more mishaps.

"We have to avoid these mistakes," said coach Gernot Rohr ahead of the quarter-final against South Africa.

Even so, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Rohr has brought stability to a team which, after winning AFCON in 2013, astonishingly failed to qualify for the subsequent two tournaments in 2015 and 2017.

The team which started Sunday's match had an average age of only 24.7 and they have shown impressive powers of recovery throughout the finals.

"We have to work much more, we are young, our midfield is the youngest one, and (Wilfred) Ndidi, (Oghenekaro) Etebo and (Alex) Iwobi, they have to learn tactically, they have to communicate better," said the German. "But they will do it."

Much could depend on how the club careers of the players progress.

Some, such as Arsenal's Iwobi and Leicester City's Ndidi are established in the English Premier League while Samuel Chukwueze, 20, has won a first team place with La Liga's Villarreal.

Others have found themselves shunted around on loan to various clubs such as central defender Omeruo, who is a Chelsea player but in the last four seasons has played on loan at Kasimpasa, Alanyaspor, Kasimpasa again and then Leganes in Spain.

Another is goalkeeper Francis Uzoho who was the first choice at last year's World Cup in Russia.

Owned by Deportivo La Coruna, the 20-year-old's inability to get regular first-team football during loan spells at Elche and then Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta forced Rohr to turn to Daniel Akpeyi who performed erratically throughout the finals.

Meanwhile, strikers Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa are playing in the less competitive leagues of China and Saudi Arabia respectively.

In another example of lack of experience, Rohr conceded that his team relaxed towards the end of the 90 minutes of Sunday's game, thinking they could win in extra-time.

"I think the players wanted it to go to extra time, thinking Algeria was more tired," he said. It proved to be a fatal miscalculation. 

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