Nigeria’s ticket to next year’s Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon was secured three hours before a 1-0 win over Benin Republic in Porto Novo but that didn’t stop the Super Eagles from celebrating after they sealed a double over the Beninoise and ended an eight-year unbeaten run for the Squirrels at the Stade Charles de Gaulle.
Substitute Paul Onuachu secured all the points with a powerful header three minutes into added time, ensuring that the Squirrels will have to avoid defeat away in Freetown on Tuesday (March 30) to be sure of a place in Cameroon. The Eagles had edged the Squirrels 2-1 when both teams met in Uyo 16 months ago.
Group mates Sierra Leone and Lesotho ended their encounter in Maseru scoreless, sending Nigeria through to the finals before they took the turf at a venue where Benin Republic had not witnessed defeat since losing 1-3 to Algeria in a 2014 Fifa World Cup qualifying match on June 09, 2013.
The result in Maseru guaranteed Nigeria a 19th appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations, in the competition’s 33rd finals. Only seven-time winners Egypt (24 previous finals), two-time winners Ivory Coast (23 previous finals), four-time winners Ghana (22 previous finals), five-time winners Cameroon (19 previous finals) and 2004 champions Tunisia (19 previous finals) have been at the AFCON more times than Nigeria, who have won the competition three times.
Two unfashionable draws against Sierra Leone in November were the only games that Nigeria played in a pandemic-ravaged year 2020, stimulating technical adviser Gernot Rohr to demand victory on Saturday in order to restore a winning mentality to his group ahead of the World Cup qualifying race starting in two months.
There was not much to cheer in a tepid first half, which saw only Henry Onyekuru’s snap header pushed out by the impressive goalkeeper Saturnin Allagbé as the major talking point. Not a hugely interesting afternoon for a sparse crowd of just 200 people, a restriction forced on the host nation by CAF as part of coronavirus-curtailing measures.
Former U17 World Cup winners Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze led for Nigeria, assisted by Henry Onyekuru but the Eagles did not exactly press for an avalanche of goals on an afternoon they already knew their flight to Cameroon was booked.
Two minutes into the second half, Chukwueze and Onyekuru failed to decide on who was better-placed to strike in the box with Onyekuru eventually sending the ball sky-high. Five minutes later, the hosts came very close when William Ekong allowed an onrushing defender to get a leg to the ball and heave it above goalkeeper Maduka Okoye, missing the net by inches. Osimhen, all strength and purpose, shot narrowly over the sticks in the 54th minute and then struck the upright two minutes later as Nigeria switched into second gear.
In the 62nd minute, Okoye flung himself full length to thwart a glancing header from slipping into the net and in the 90th minute, Osimhen forced a good save from Allagbé with a powerful header.
Onuachu, on the field for 20 minutes after replacing Iheanacho, was gifted a gold-plated opportunity to score only his second goal for Nigeria as the ball rose high in the box following Osimhen’s attempt from a Chukwueze’s corner kick.
The Eagles returned to their Golden Tulip Hotel in Cotonou after the match and will be back in Lagos on Sunday to begin preparation for Tuesday’s final-round game against Lesotho at the Teslim Balogun Stadium.
Story by Humphrey Njoku