Lookman knocks Angola out in quarter-finals as Nigeria stick to Afcon script

<span>Ademola Lookman celebrates scoring the winner in the 41st minute.</span><span>Photograph: Legnan Koula/EPA</span>
Ademola Lookman celebrates scoring the winner in the 41st minute.Photograph: Legnan Koula/EPA

The greatest shock of all, perhaps, is when there is no shock. In a Cup of Nations in which reputation and pre-tournament billing has meant nothing, there was at last a game that went the way that might have been expected, as Ademola Lookman’s first-half goal and a fourth clean sheet in a row carried Nigeria to the last four of the Cup of Nations for the 16th time.

It is a familiar position for them to be in, and it was a familiar way in which they achieved it. Although Zini hit the post when the score was 1-0, this was another very controlled performance from José Peseiro’s side, the only real concern their failure to add a second and make the game safe.

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Peseiro was clearly a little frustrated at the lack of ruthlessness that squandered a couple of counterattacks and at the brief spells when the game opened up, but launched a spirited defence of his record before the tournament, insisting friendlies are only for preparation and explaining at some length why nobody should underestimate the significance of a win over Angola. “My players fought for this win,” he said. “They believe in our model, our organisation, our spirit.”

Angola’s impressively blunt coach, Pedro Gonçalves, was of a similar mind. “Nigeria deserved this win,” he said. “Trying to moan about this defeat is not a good attitude. We supposedly have very good forwards but they didn’t really perform today. Because the game was very intense there was a lot of fatigue and my players were not able to keep up with the rhythm of the match.”

Nigeria are exceptionally good at quarter-finals. This was the 11th they have played in at the Cup of Nations since the expansion of the tournament in 1990; they have lost only one, in 2008 to a Ghana inspired by Junior Agogo. And this Angola, whatever Peseiro may claim, are not a Ghana inspired by Junior Agogo.

On a draining afternoon hot and humid even by the standards of the Ivorian February, as the rhythmic drumming of the Nigeria fans exercised a soporific effect, the game had slumped into a pre-half-time torpor when the winner arrived from nowhere. The Atletico Petroleos right-back Eddie Afonso had perhaps allowed the drowsy mood to affect him as he reacted sluggishly to an apparently overhit forward pass, allowing Moses Simon to nip in ahead of him. With Victor Osimhen making a typically intelligent run to the near post, drawing three defenders with him, Simon cut the ball back for Lookman to smash in his third goal of the tournament.

The mood of frankness was clearly catching. “Victory is the most important thing,” said the man of the match, Simon. “Winning man of the match when you lose is just shit.”

For Angola it was a third Cup of Nations quarter-final and a third defeat. They can draw encouragement from how well they played in the first three weeks of the tournament – far better, frankly, than on the previous two occasions they made it through the group in 2008 and 2010 – but other than an early opportunity for Mabululu after a corner they created little. They did, though, have that golden chance just before the hour as Alex Iwobi, who has been so assured in this tournament as a whole, lost possession. Zini was played in and rolled the ball past Stanley Nwabali, only to see it bounce back off the post. It would have been against the run of play, but it was a moment that, you suspect, will haunt Zini. Iwobi might be haunted too by the furious reaction of Nwabala who grabbed him by the cheeks to point out his error.

Even as Nigeria scrapped their way through the group and beat Cameroon in the last 16 with clean sheets, there were plenty of fans grumbling at Peseiro. Many have said they do not want the Portuguese 63-year-old to stay on even if Nigeria win the tournament. And it is true that Peseiro – 13 jobs since leaving Sporting in 2005, none of them for more than 50 games – did not seem an inspiring choice and their football is not particularly exciting.

The deep-lying back three, as on Friday, often seems like a needlessly conservative ploy. But in a tournament in which shock has followed shock, leaving Nigeria as the highest-ranked side still standing, Peseiro can perhaps reasonably reflect that if you don’t concede you don’t lose – and Nigeria have not conceded since Ibán Edu scored against them for Equatorial Guinea nine minutes before half-time in their opening game.

Solidity plus Osimhen (and Lookman) is proving a highly effective option.