Sanuel Kalu, Victor Osimhen star as Nigeria defeat Benin in Super Eagles’ Afcon opener
Nigeria overcame a scare from Benin to eke out a 2-1 home win in their opening 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
Stephane Sessegnon took advantage of sloppy Nigeria defending to put the Squirrels ahead two minutes in, but Victor Osimhen tucked away a penalty, after Ola Aina had been felled in the box, and Samuel Kalu waltzed his way through the defence to find a second-half winner for the Super Eagles.
Benin could have equalised late on, rattling the woodwork with Nigeria goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi beaten, but that was as close as they went and the Super Eagles held on to claim an opening win that saw them go top of the group.
Here are three takeaways from the game
Gernot Rohr rewards endeavour
Nigeria’s final selection of the year — and the Super Eagles’ third game after the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt — was expected to provide insight into which players Gernot Rohr would pick as starters going forward, and why.
The question before this fixture against Benin, with almost all his “first-choice” players back, was: Would the coach stick with the two players who had done so well for him previously; or would he default to his previous mainstays?
One of those decisions was taken out of Rohr’s hands with the injury to Oghenekaro Etebo, which meant the coach started Aribo in midfield despite previous statements that suggested otherwise.
That was a sign that the Rangers man has possibly won the most important heart of all — Rohr’s; And after helping to set up Aina to win the penalty that Osimhen converted, it is uncertain how the coach will resolve the situation when all three midfielders — Etebo, Wilfred Ndidi and Aribo — are fit and available.
Defence, meanwhile. provided a bit more clarity.
Even with Kenneth Omeruo back, Rohr opted to start Ajayi alongside William Troost-Ekong at the back. That partnership had looked solid against Ukraine and Brazil, and now it looks as if Omeruo will have to work his way back from the outside.
All up, Rohr’s selections seemed to suggest that he will, as much as possible, reward players for a combination of both past performances and club minutes.
The coach made only three changes from the team that played Brazil, with Akpeyi replacing the injured Francis Uzoho; Aina replacing stand-in right back Chidozie Awaziem; and Kalu preferred to Moses Simon.
This bodes well for the future, as it tells the players there are no guarantees, that they must fight for their shirts every single game — and earn it on the basis of their performances at club level and with the national team.
There can be no better motivation to play well.
Osimhen writing his own legend
Some of Nigeria’s best forwards have been cold-blooded from the penalty spot. Rashidi Yekini was a no-frills assassin from six yards. Obafemi Martins hit penalties with precision. Yakubu Ayegbeni, despite the vitriol he took from fans, hardly ever missed from the spot.
More recently, Odion Ighalo could be relied upon to despatch penalty kicks with almost consummate ease, no matter the occasion.
Against Benin, Osimhen stepped up at what was a crucial moment for Nigeria.
Aina had won a penalty kick with the Super Eagles trailing 1-0 to Sessesgnon’s early strike.
A goal would restore confidence and get the Eagles to push on for the win, but a miss would have dampened spirits no end.
It was a high-pressure situation, but Osimhen had no hesitation stepping up to the ball.
The 20-year-old showed nerves of steel as he coolly put the ball beyond the reach of Benin goalkeeper Fabon Famolle to draw the Super Eagles level.
This was only Osimhen’s third start as lead striker for Nigeria, and his fourth overall, but the forward showed that he has not just the talent but also the mental fortitude to be the Super Eagles’ leading man for years to come.
The goal provided the platform for Kalu to score a spectacular solo winning goal.
Kalu ran at the opposition defence to devastating effect, slipping past marker after marker to hit a daisy cutter from range that gave the Super Eagles the win and justified Rohr’s decision to start the Bordeaux man ahead of Simon.
Uyo still has the best grounds but it needs fans
Once again, it was clear that, everything else apart, the Super Eagles and other Nigeria national teams should be playing games at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium.
There is no doubt that Uyo still has the best active working stadium in Nigeria, and the pitch looked way better than anything available elsewhere. Rohr himself has had cause to point to both the stadium and the pitch as being best for his players.
But the stadium was virtually empty.
Perhaps it came down to a for lack of information, as the venue was not confirmed until only a week before the fixture. But a lot more needs to be done to get fans to the grounds.
It is a right shame to have the Super Eagles playing in front of a near-empty stadium.