Kelechi Iheanacho overshadowed other Premier League stars Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez on Tuesday as Nigeria made a winning start to their Africa Cup of Nations campaign and title holders Algeria were held.
The Leicester City forward scored the only goal in 30 minutes as Nigeria defeated weak Egypt 1-0 in a clash of Group D big guns in the northwestern city of Garoua.
His match-winner and overall performance earned Iheanacho the man-of-the-match award one day when prolific Liverpool striker Salah and Manchester City winger Mahrez failed to sparkle.
Captain Salah cut an isolated, frustrated figure at the Stade Roumde Adjia and when he got a goal chance in the second half, his shot was saved by goalkeeper Maduka Okoye.
It was an otherwise uneventful night for Nigeria’s goal scorer, who must have expected to be called into action more often against the seven-time African champions.
“We had three things in mind – to win, to keep possession and to break the supply to Salah,” said Nigeria’s caretaker Augustine Eguavoen.
“Every match will be treated as a final because every team in Cameroon must be respected regardless of the name of the country.
“There are no smaller football nations in Africa anymore so if you do not plan and make an effort you may be shocked.”
This was the eighth meeting between the Super Eagles and Pharaohs in the African flagship tournament and triple champions Nigeria have won four and two draws.
Nigeria succeeded after a troubled build-up in which the German coach Gernot Rohr was fired after an unimpressive World Cup qualifier and the former national star Eguavoen took temporary responsibility.
Eguavo’s squad was without forwards Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo for various reasons, but his team went on the offensive from kick-off and made him proud.
Fast forward Moses Simon played a big role when the Super Eagles took the lead at the stadium with 30,000 capacity.
Guinea-Bissau still undefeated
His cross was only partially cleared by Ahmed Hegazy and Nigerian Joseph Aribo nodded the ball in the way of Iheanacho, who hammered a half volley past goalkeeper Mohamed Elshenawy.
After the later Group D match, Guinea-Bissau is still without a win in three Cup of Nations appearances as Judilson ‘Pele’ Gomes missed a penalty and the woodwork saved Sudan twice in a 0-0 draw.
Algeria were hot favorites to win the opening Group E match against Sierra Leone, a low-ranked team that made its first Cup of Nations appearance since 1996.
But captain Mahrez could not inspire his team in the Atlantic port city of Douala and several excellent saves by Sierra Leone’s goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara saw him voted man of the match.
His best moment came in the second half when Yacine Brahimi broke through, but the goalkeeper kept his shot on the second attempt.
Ivory Coast, who are considered the biggest threat to Algeria in the section, face Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday in a match that offers both teams a chance to top the table.
A draw enabled Algeria to extend their remarkable unbeaten streak in competition to 35 matches, just two less than Italy’s record of 37 unbeaten.
The heat and humidity from a mid-afternoon kick-off at Japoma Stadium did not help, but Sierra Leone deserves huge credit for their performance.
“We met well-organized opponents and the weather conditions were difficult. It was very, very hot and extremely humid,” said Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi.
“We are close to Italy’s unbeaten record, which is good. We are unbeaten in three years, but we do not think about it before every match. We just wanted to win today.”
English-born Sierra Leone coach John Keister said: “We are here to do our thing. Whether we are a surprise in this tournament remains to be seen. I do not want to be dragged along after a match.”