Super Eagles fans heaved a huge sigh of relief at the last whistle after visitors Cape Verde held Nigeria to a hard fought 1:1 draw in this evening's world cup qualifier, a result that guaranteed safe passage to the final round for Nigeria.
Needing a favourable outcome at home following the shambolic loss to Central Africa Republic at the same stadium in September, the Super Eagles were quick out of the blocks today when Osimhen latched on to a loose ball (following a Moses Simon inswinger into the box 18) to finish off with a low drive in just 1 minute.
But the visitors' counterstroke was equally expeditious after Ekong lost Cape Verde's Stopira inside Nigeria's 18 yard box following a corner kick before he (Stopira) shot past a hapless Okoye who perhaps could have done better in just 6 minutes.
Despite numerous chances created by Nigeria and some anxious moments from Cape Verde on the side, the game ended 1:1 to the relief of fans.
It was a disciplined display from the Super Eagles who could have scored more than 1 goal but they met the Cape Verde goalkeeper in inspired form. Compact play and positional astuteness from Nigeria helped contain the Cape Verdeans long enough to see out the game.
Below are my player ratings:
Maduka Okoye (6/10) : the new Watford man fell at the first hurdle, conceding from a corner kick in just the 6th minute after Ekong competently lost his man. The 21 year old net minder exhibited questionable technique by comically allowing the ball to go through him. That aside Okoye's starting position was promising as he came out a number of times in a timely manner to douse the flames of the opponents' attacks into the box 18. He also executed decent distributions. In all, Okoye showed alertness in a tension soaked match but still didn't always look as assured as one would expect.
The jury is still out in certain corners as to whether Okoye is good enough to be Nigeria's number one despite his high profile move to the English Premier League.
Moses Simon (5.5/10) : again, one can't really fault the work rate of the Nantes winger who gave his all before being withdrawn due to injury. His corner kicks did leave a lot to be desired though and some of his other set pieces were overcooked, even though the bend he applied to one of his freekicks almost resulted in a spectacular goal.
Simon's troublesome inswinger caused the defensive mayhem inside Cape Verde's box 18 that Osimhen profited for Nigeria's solitary goal. The diminutive winger showed determination not to be breached at the back and he got into decent positions up front where his end products remained (sadly) below par for the most parts.
William Troost-Ekong (4.5/10): the Watford man was a liability at times in this encounter. He made a pigs ear of a simple pass that almost caused a major incident inside Nigeria's 18 yard box deep in the first half before Awaziem came to the rescue. Earlier, his shoddy defending inside the 18 yard box following a corner kick left Cape Verde's Stopira free to blast past Okoye in just 6 minutes which set the tone for his overall poor outing today.
In the second half, he was however alert to help keep Cape Verde at bay. He played his part in showing the positional discipline and sharp markings that made the game remain 1:1.
Leon Balogun (6/10) : his first touch let him down briefly earlier in the first half but he distributed the ball well enough. Balogun looked assured and in command and was often at the right place to make crucial interceptions.
For the second game running, Balogun conceded a freekick in a (very) promising area for the opposition, this time towards the left side just outside Nigeria's box 18 in the dying minutes after a very clumsy tackle just after the same Cape Verde player dribbled him silly.
Chidozie Awaziem (6.5/10): he wasn't quite as adventurous or flamboyant as in the last match as he elected to focus on his defensive duties. Awaziem's markings and interceptions were near-top notch tonight. He kept it rather simple with his distribution and he was always ready to mop up Ekong's mess. He help others double up on opposition attackers.
Just like his other colleagues, Awaziem was as alert as a leopard in the dying minutes to keep the Cape Verdeans at arms length.
Jamilu Collins (7/10): this was a vastly improved performance from the Paderborn man as his performance had far more positives than negatives. Yes he executed a terrible freekick and some of his throw-ins were unproductive. However in the same breath, some of his throw-ins were expertly executed as they travelled far and caused panic. He could have claimed an assist in the first half had Ighalo made better use of his (Collins) beautiful low cross.
In fact, Collins delivered another posh cross to Osimhen in the second half which caused problems. He also executed a key block to deny the Cape Verdeans a legitimate chance and another great clearance in the second half.
In short, Collins was up for it today and had a splendid game offensively and defensively.
Wilfred Ndidi (7/10): shielding the defence is his subroutine and he carried it out robustly. The Leicester man barely put a foot wrong and was the parapet that the Cape Verdeans found hard to breach more so in the dying minutes when he provided extra body in the 18 yard box to prevent a potential goal bound effort.
Ndidi would pop up in and around Cape Verde's 18 yard box on occasions to deliver delicate passes and open up channels of attack. His forward forays were meaningful, not only in creating scoring chances but in helping peg back Cape Verde.
Ndidi was indeed masterful today.
Joe Aribo (6.5/10) : anonymous early on, the Rangers man grew into the match as time wore on. He would unleash a fearsome effort to the goalkeeper's right that needed to be saved following an Ighalo neat knock down. In fact he had another effort on goal after which also drew a save from the goalkeeper.
At the back, Aribo did his fair share of defending, making a crucial clearance. He was very much dialled in today and got into the thick of the game. He was by no means a passenger even though he tired into the second half. Aribo refused to be pulled out of position which in turn allowed the Super Eagles dictate the tempo for long periods.
A much improved performance however more is still expected of a centre midfielder.
Alex Iwobi (8.5/10) : oh my goodness, where does he get the lungs and legs from? As if there were multiple Iwobis on the pitch today as the Everton man was just about everywhere to great effect. The ebullient midfielder had a shot on target in 10 minutes interspersed with him helping Nigeria retain possession, dictate play and orchestrate the pacing of the game.
Iwobi, on more than one occasion, helped to retrieve the ball from opposition players to put Nigeria back on the front foot. His through ball to Iheanacho later in the match was a joy to behold.
In short, Iwobi's output for Nigeria was simply remarkable today.
Odion Ighalo (5/10): the returnee Saudi based striker had problems with the pacing of the game earlier on as he seemed to lag behind the tempo. He made a hash of a beautiful cross from Collins and also blew a header wide following a cross from Osimhen.
That said Ighalo did provide a neat lay off for Aribo whose glorious shot was parried. He also provided a promising through ball to Osimhen in the second half. But I think Ighalo's diminishing mobility meant Osimhen had to cover more grounds. Ighalo seemed content just hovering around the 18 yard box. Is this a good or bad thing? I guess any striker paired with Ighalo has to be prepared to do more of the grunt work.
Victor Osimhen (9/10) [My Man of the Match] : the Napoli man deserves his goal today because he earned it with hard work and tireless dedication. Osimhen was tenacious, not giving up on any chance however slim or difficult. He did most of the dirty work up front and worked his socks off. He kept faith with the half-chance from Simon's in-swinger to volley home from close range after the ball refracted off a defender's head in the first minute.
Osimhen performed the high press to perfection often causing the Cape Verdeans to rethink their approach. He tracked all the way back to Nigeria's box 18 at some point to foil the opponents' plans. He delivered a number of crosses,did the dirty work up front, was always aware of his surroundings and helped the team maintain its shape.
Osimhen's hard work shone through.
Shehu Abdullahi (5.5/10) : the Cyprus man came in at a time the Cape Verdeans were making multiple substitutions in preparation of throwing the kitchen sink at Nigeria. True to expectation, they stepped on the gas and attempted to pile pressure on Nigeria in the dying minutes. Shehu had to be alert to play his part in weathering the storm and he did by staying in position and not leaving needles gaps.
Kelechi Iheanacho (5/10): Vardy's strike partner tried to get into promising positions. He did his best to help the team maintain its shape up front. He was at the end of a through pass that held hope for a second goal.
Although he lost possession carelessly initially, Iheanacho's introduction meant the Cape Verdeans could not be too careless in their search for a second goal as he did his fair share of closing down (pressing).
Frank Onyeka (5/10): the Brentford man was always on the lookout to make interceptions so he didn't really see much of the ball.
Paul Onuachu (4.5/10): he showed lack of awareness of his surroundings by ploughing straight into something like 3 defenders when he could have held up play and pass to the nearest player.
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