The Porto full-back was one the few bright spots on a night when Super Eagles fans saw their coach return to old habits
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Despite attempts to play down its significance, Friday night’s clash between Nigeria and Algeria offered a chance for revenge.
It was only 15 months prior that Riyad Mahrez had stepped up, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, to arrow a free-kick in for the win at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. While the reality of the match as a whole, as well as the justice of the result, was undeniable, the popular sentiment at the time seemed to dictate the Super Eagles would have gone on to win the tie in extra-time.
This, then, was the time to set that particular record straight.
Unfortunately, however, no one of a Nigerian persuasion shared that particular script with Les Fennecs.
As it was in Cairo, so it was in Klagenfurt; the location made no difference to a superior Algerian side, and neither did eight changes from that semi-final. The flow of the game was even similar: this second instalment also featured an opening period of such sheer transcendence that Nigeria could not get close to their white-clad opponents, followed by a brief spell when Gernot Rohr’s Eagles clawed their way back into competitiveness, and then a conclusion wherein Algeria saw out the game with relative comfort.
Of course, the Super Eagles had absences of their own, shorn of such influential players as Victor Osimhen (who watched that crushing defeat in Egypt from the bench), Joe Aribo (who was two months removed from a maiden outing in green and white at the time of said defeat), Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo by the mean tag-team of Covid-19 and injuries.
However, while this may have been insufficient mitigation for defeat, it nevertheless provided an avenue for the appraisal of a number of debutants in the team.
The most impressive performance of the newbies came, ironically, from the one player who was not standing in the breach for an injured colleague. Despite the presence in the squad of regular left-back Jamilu Collins, new Porto man Zaidu Sanusi made his first start for the Super Eagles in Austria, and delivered an effervescent showing to titillate.
While Collins has been largely solid since assuming the position, it always felt like something was missing.
By virtue of his athleticism, he was a capable enough defender, but he seemed to lack the dynamism to fulfil the other side of the role, and on that account it was only a matter of time (and providence) before he got displaced.
Those two reactants, chucked into a beaker and swirled around, have brought forth a solution in Sanusi, a whippet of a full-back with the acceleration to go both ways and a wicked delivery from wide areas.
Defensively, up against Farid Boulaya and Riyad Mahrez drifting into that zone, he more than pulled his weight, keeping the former quiet and outmuscling the latter; offensively, he carried that entire flank at times, bombing forward in support of Samuel Kalu and even allowing the Bordeaux man to take up narrower position.
It now appears that, with Collins yet to gain any traction this season at Paderborn, and with Alex Telles having left Porto for Manchester United, Sanusi has the position sewn up.
At least he had a position to sew up, which was more than could be said for the other debutant from the start.
Young Frank Onyeka has earned rave reviews for his performances for Midtjylland, and notably scored in the 4-1 home victory that secured a place for the Danish side in the Uefa Champions League group stage. Here, however, he looked frazzled, uncertain of his duties alongside Semi Ajayi, who was himself moonlighting as a midfield anchor.
The opening 15-20 minutes made for particularly uncomfortable viewing, as the 22-year-old lurched from one emergency to the other, tossed to and fro by the slickness of the reigning African champions. It is difficult enough to come to terms with the weight of representing one’s country, but to do so with very little clarity as to function and responsibility is the cruellest of jokes.
Thankfully his misery was short, but his plight was, perhaps comfortingly for him, not unique.
As the game wore on and whatever invention there was in the Super Eagles seeped away, Kelvin Akpoguma and Samson Tijani both got cameos playing odd roles.
The former can play at right-back, but to plump for him in place of the returning Tyronne Ebuehi, especially when Ola Aina was sat on the bench, seemed difficult to grasp; the latter, for all his apparently prodigious gifts, seems to be undergoing a quick education in the John Mikel Obi School of deep-lying playmakers shoehorned into the space behind the striker.
Neither decision paid off particularly, although it must be said they gave the distinct impression Rohr had altogether ceased to care. It was, after all, a friendly.
However, perhaps the most concerning part of it all was that this performance – from the German, rather than from the players – evoked the very worries that his post-Afcon spell seemed to have dispelled: leaden play, poor substitutions and square pegs jammed into round holes. It would appear, then, that old habits die hard.