22 June 2019
Striker Odion Ighalo came off the bench after 74 minutes and scored with his second touch to give Nigeria an opening Group B win against Burundi at the Africa Cup of Nations in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr surprisingly left China-based Ighalo, the former Watford hitman on the bench for the untested beanpole striker Paul Onuachu, from FC Midtjylland in Denmark. Ighalo wasted his first touch, but made no mistake three minutes later when he latched on to a back-heeled assist from Torino left-back Ola Aina to calmly bend the ball into the far corner.
It was heartache for Burundi, playing in their first continental competition and putting in a disciplined effort all game to frustrate Nigeria. They had the best chances of the first half in which Nigerian players, perhaps suffering from the heat, were very sluggish and showed little inspiration, especially with skipper Mikel Obi operating in the playmaking role at pedestrian pace.
Watch the highlights below:
Nigeria dominated possession, with Burundi led by Saido Berahino, playing on the counter. The central Africans came close in the 13th minute with a ball over the top from midfield that split the two Nigerian centre-backs William Troost-Ekong and Kenneth Omeruo, only for goalie Daniel Akpeyi to rescue his country with a brilliant save.
Akpeyi should have grown in confidence from that save, but he went on to put in a jittery performance for the rest of the game. It was hearts-in-the-mouth stuff whenever the ball came to him. Rohr must be wondering if the Kaizer Chiefs stopper is an upgrade on Francis Uzoho, the Number One at the World Cup in Russia. Nigeria’s luck was in today as Burundi failed to profit from a handful of clangers from Akpeyi. The reaction from Nigerians on social media was predictable.
Burundi came close again just after the half hour mark when a looping header from near the edge of the area from a floated free kick bounced off the crossbar. As Burundi grew into the game, Nigeria’s passing was disjointed, they were poor at set-pieces, and the only spark of inspiration was coming from left-footed winger Samuel Chukwueze operating down the Super Eagles’ right flank. He skinned a few Burundi defenders on several occasions, but his final ball kept letting him down. Chukwueze, from Spanish club Villareal, has a great international future ahead of him when he cuts out his poor decision making.
Nigeria had a few close chances in the first half from Onuachu with a weak shot on 26 minutes and Obi with a misplaced header from a corner after 35 minutes. But these were few and far between in a half full of misplaced passes and basic errors, with midfielders Oghenekaro Etebo and Alex Iwobi among the worst culprits.
Iwobo’s game improved after the break when the disappointing Mikel was subbed after 56 minutes, as the fleet-footed Ahmed Musa came in and occupied the left flank, while Iwobi shifted to a more central role. Before then Omeruo had come close with a header that just went over the crossbar from an Etebo delivery.
A clever one-touch move on the hour involving Iwobi and Musa could have led to better things but for a poor cross to the middle from Musa, who became a cult hero for Nigerian fans after his two goals against Iceland in the World Cup last year. Chukwueze also threatened with a run that saw him ghost past three defenders only to be let down by a final cross cum shot.
Ighalo then came on for the ineffective Onuachu and changed the course of proceedings with his composed finish.
Nigeria will be happy with the result but not the performance after missing out on the last two tournaments. Three points in the bag puts them in a good position going into the next match on Wednesday against the other favourites in the group, Guinea, who play Madagascar later this evening.
Coach Rohr was pleased with the three points in trying circumstances: “It was a very difficult match for us because this team of Burundi is very organised. Olivier Niyungeko their coach is very experienced and they qualified in a very tough group. They were unbeaten in the qualifiers.
“It was very difficult to score the first goal. If the goal is not coming quickly, you suffer and have to work hard to score and win the matches. Our plan was to bring on Ighalo when the other other team perhaps give us more space. But the problem we had today was physical as many players were sick. The last two weeks there was a virus half of the team could not train. And they were tired. Musa was one of them as he couldn’t start first half. And yesterday we lost two players in training.” He added: “It’s good to win the first match, its never easy. The second will also be difficult against wonderful Guinea and also against Madagascar. We try to give our best but Its good to start slowly and reach higher and higher and hope we have six more matches to play.”
The performance would have to be a lot better than this if the Super Eagles are not going to fly home early.