It may have been only Benin Republic. Then Lesotho. But you can only beat what is in front of you.
The first match in Porto Novo was tougher. First, the Squirrels of Benin had never lost a match at home in eight years. And then, the hosts employed mischievous antics to frustrate their more illustrious opponents.
The Nigerians, who travelled to the neighbouring country via boat, landed late and couldn’t train because their desperate hosts obviously switched off stadium lights. The Beninoise didn’t stop there. One of the Super Eagles inform players, Alex Iwobi of Everton was dubiously declared COVID-19 positive in what later turned out a faulty declaration about 48 hours after the match.
But if Iwobi was missing in the line-up, nobody actually noticed as the Super Eagles kicked off in style and kept the tempo most of the match.
With Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester City marshalling the midfield, linking up with his club mate Kelechi Iheanacho, both in electric form, the Eagles had quality goalkeeping from the host’s Saturnin Allagbé and unbelievable misses to blame for a goalless encounter at end of 90 minutes. But football is hardly played for 90 minutes these days. In the last minute of the extra four added, substitute Paul Onuachu forced a header over the line after goalkeeper Allagbe had miraculously denied Victor Osimhen from close range.
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Both Samuel Chukwueze and Henry Onyekuru had tormented the Beninoise from either flank with the host’s central pair in defence having a task of their lives containing a very powerful Osimhen. The score line would have been more, even far more, but no fan of the Eagles truly complained. They played well and topped the group with 11 points and a round of matches still.
Three days later at the Teslimi Balogun Stadium in Lagos, the home team picked up from where they stopped.
From start to finish, their superiority was never in doubt. It was free-flowing from defence to attack. With Iwobi coming into the team to operate from the left flank and Chukwueze on the other flank, the visitors had their hands full, especially with a towering and persistently tormenting Osimhen ably supported by crafty Iheanacho.
The Napoli striker struck in the 23rd minute via a sumptuous assist from the Leicester City striker but it was far less than all their efforts were worth in over 115 minutes of action. Osimhen, easily the man-of-the-match for Nigeria in both encounters, was a handful for both defences and will be for any other.
Goals from Galatasary’s Oghenekaro Etobo, who equally had a great match and Onuachu, who came off the bench again to power a bullet into the roof of the net, completed the rout.
It was a pleasant display in front of a COVID-19-induced scanty crowd, who were setting eyes on their senior national side for the first time in 20 years.
From those two matches, any keen observer would have noticed a bright future for this gradually maturing side.
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The goalkeeping department might still be a worry with no settled first choice yet but the centre back spine of Scottish Rangers’ Leon Balogun and Watford’s William Troost-Ekong remain as constant and as reliable as ever, so much so that whoever complements them on either side will not really distort the solidity.
In midfield, Ndidi has grown in his vital role of shielding that back four and initiating attack. With Iwobi and Etebo, the middle is relatively secured.
It is in attack that the team has vastly improved. Despite a very disappointing time in Napoli, Osimhen is turning out a very fearsome marksman. Tall, leggy and pacy, the very physically built former U-17 prodigy makes maximum use of his endowment to devastating effect.
And it’s just as well because the even taller and hot-in-form Onuachu is determined to be the nation’s top striker. Playing in the Belgian Jupiter Pro League, the Genk striker’s 25 strikes so far this season is the top of the pack. Towering at nearly 6’7″, the 26-year old proved his red hot form with two goals as late substitutes in both matches.
Still there’s Iheanacho, whose form in the English Premiership has seen him relegate rampaging teammate, Jamie Vardy to second best in recent weeks. He played as support striker in both matches. He couldn’t get on the goals but his assist for Osimhen’s goal looked like a collector’s item from the Lionel Messi ranks.
Then you have Villarreal of Spain’s Chukwueze and Onyekuru inventing tricks from either flanks.
If the coach, German’s Gernot Rohr is anything after those two matches, it should be a happy man. From the way his team is evolving, he is likely very close to a major trophy.
With the right tactics these Eagles should inspire hope.