Nigeria picked all three points in a hard –fought 2-1 win over Benin Republic as the group phase of the qualifying campaign for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations began on Wednesday.
The Squirrels shocked the modest crowd at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo in south-south Nigeria as Stephane Sessegnon swept home after only two minutes, following Jodel Dossou’s brilliant run from the flank that left Jamilu Collins in no man’s land.
Two minutes later, Benin Republic came knocking again and would have made it two from a corner kick if not for some spirited defending as goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi was again exposed.
From then, it was Nigeria all the way, with goalkeeper Fabon Famolle having to stretch full length to parry Ola Aina’s low drive in the 13th minute, and then saving from Victor Osimhen four minutes later.
Samuel Kalu’s 22 –yard free kick was way above the bar on the half hour, and four minutes from recess, Samuel Chukwueze saw his smart shot from a brilliant team move clip the crossbar with Famolle rooted to one spot. A minute later, Kalu could not get to the ball to connect Osimhen’s pull-out, but in the 45th minute, roving Ola Aina was upended in the visitors’ box in another raid by Nigeria and Senegalese referee Issa Sy had no choice than to give a penalty, which Osimhen tucked away for the equalizer.
In the second period, the Eagles were even more business-like, as Alex Iwobi, Joseph Ayodele-Aribo and Wilfred Ndidi tightened the midfield and gave good support for Chukwueze and Kalu to bear down on the opposition from the wings.
In the 47th minute, a snap shot by Iwobi sailed narrowly over the bar; Famolle had to parry fierce shots from Aribo and Osimhen and; in the 62nd minute, Samuel Kalu danced his way past a sea of legs and drove the ball low and fast beyond the groping hands of Famolle for Nigeria’s second goal.
Four minutes later, Famolle had to be alert to tip over the bar another stinging shot from Kalu and then saved from the same player in the 71st minute as Nigeria launched onslaught after onslaught.
However, the Squirrels could have been level in the 73rd minute but Dossou rocked the crossbar from a fast break. Two minutes later, Semi Ajayi came close as he connected a free kick by Kalu.
Substitute Moses Simon nearly made it three with a fierce shot in the 80th minute that Famolle was lucky to parry away, but the Squirrels also had a chance to equalize, only for William Ekong to intervene decisively just as the trigger was about to be pulled in added time.
Victory took Nigeria top of their qualifying group, with Sierra Leone and Lesotho ending their encounter in Freetown 1-1 to share the spoils.
Next up for the Super Eagles is a clash with Likuena (Crocodiles) of Lesotho in Day 2 of the qualifying campaign, at the Maseru-Setsoto Stadium on Sunday, 17th November.