The ref’s whistle after three minutes of added time at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State signalled an eruption of joy and relief from the stands and in bars and living rooms across Nigeria, as the Super Eagles became the first African country to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year.
But the African giants made hard work of dispatching closest Group B rivals Zambia. Nigeria went into the game leading the group with 10 points, while Zambia were at seven points, with one round of matches left after today. It was a very nervy affair for both Nigerian players and fans as the team struggled to seize the initiative and keep the ball away from the Zambians.
It took a goal in the 73rd minute from supersub Alex Iwobi to calm Nigerian nerves as the plucky Zambians threatened to spoil the party on several occasions.
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The Nigerians were guilty of sloppy play all game and didn’t seem to have an answer for long ball down the middle from Zambia, even though the centre-back pairing of William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun are quite decent in the air. A clearance from goalie Kennedy Mweene after 23 minutes was knocked on for a Zambian attacker as the static Nigerian defence looked on, Ikechukwu Ezenwa in the Nigerian goal was beaten but the effort was wrongfully ruled offside.
Nigeria continued to look shaky and ride their luck especially after defensive midfielder Ogenyi Onazi was subbed due to injury, and replacement Mikel Agu looked like a calamity waiting to happen. Zambia came close again on 31 minutes when Balogun was easily muscled off the ball and the Zambia attacker shot over the bar with the goal at his mercy. Five minutes later Ezenwa turned a long range effort round the post.
The home side had to two decent chances just before the interval. The first followed a good Nigeria move that saw Victor Moses flick the ball to Odion Ighalo to his right, but the former Watford hitman blazed his effort over the bar. A minute later Ighalo’s mazy dribble set up Moses Simon, but the winger went for the spectacular acrobatic effort and missed the target. Simon’s decision-making left a lot to be desired.
Zambia resumed after the break with more purpose, but Nigeria came the closest to opening the scoring with a looping header from Wilfred Ndidi, heading for the far corner until Mweene tipped it over.
Iwobi replaced the wasteful Simon and showed he was a different class, living up the old saying by legendary manager Brian Clough that “football is a simple game made complicated by idiots”. The Arsenal midfielder kept it simple, releasing the ball at the right time and not taking the extra touch when one would do. His substitution proved to be inspired when Moses exchanged passes with full-back Abdullahi Shehu on the overlap and this time he looked up before delivering a low cross towards the edge of the box for Iwobi to rifle home. It was simplicity at its best and it was finished with the precision and efficiency of a surgical incision.
If Zambia’s World Cup hopes were on life support, Iwobi pulled the plug to send his country to their record sixth appearance. Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia who led their independence struggle, called his autobiography “Zambia shall be free”. Iwobi ensured that they shall be free to watch the World Cup from their living rooms.