By Sulaimon Alao:
ARSENAL star, Alex Iwobi made all the difference for the Super Eagles Saturday evening at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium when he calmly slotted home the lone goal against the Chipolopolo of Zambia, to help Nigeria book the ticket to the Russia 2018 World Cup.
The game lived up to pre-match expectations and it was indeed a cagey one which could have gone either way or ended in a draw but for Iwobi’s introduction which totally altered the complexion of the match.
The Chipolopolo, needing a draw or an outright win to extend the qualification race till the last game, did their home work well and gave Nigeria a good run for their money in a very tense and dramatic game. The very athletic Zambians deployed a physical strategy, combined with pace which greatly unsettled the star-studded Nigerian side that is more suited to fluid passing style. The poor surface of the pitch also conspired against the host team, as the Eagles struggled for the better part of the game to find their rhythm on the bumpy turf.
The Zambians were obviously not intimidated by the Eagles, following their double-header victories over Algeria which pushed them to 7 points as the only contender with Nigeria on 10 points. And rather than sit back to soak up pressure from their host, the visitors made good use of their athleticism to attack and defend en-masse. It was obvious that the Eagles struggled to match the pace of the Zambians, which indirectly contributed to the injuries the duo of Ogenyi Onazi and Elderson Echiejile picked up during the game, leading to their forced substitutions. That meant coach Gernot Rohr had to alter his game plan by thrusting Mikel Agu into the game early on and Ola Aina much later. Yet, the Eagles were able to create a number of chances but Mikel Obi, Odion Ighalo, Moses Simon and Victor Moses all opted for power instead of precision shooting. Wilfred Ndidi also did well with a header which was saved by goalkeeper and captain, Kennedy Mweene.The Zambians too created a number of chances of their own, with Nigeria’s goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa doing well to keep out Alex Ngonga’s 30-yard drive.
With only one normal substitution remaining to make, coach Rohr indeed was spot on. The coach hauled off Simon from the left flank and brought in Iwobi. With that substitution, came a tactical switch that saw Moses moved over to the left side of the attack while Iwobi played from the right.
The impact was immediate as the Arsenal forward’s ‘one-touch’ quick passing and off-the-ball runs into spaces help opened up the Chipolopolo defense. Before the Zambians could come to terms with the Eagles new-found rhythm, Iwobi had done the damage. Iwobi was involved in a quick exchange of passes and the Arsenal man was at the right place at the right time in the Zambian box, when Shehu Abdullahi squared a lovely ball which he calmly slotted into the net.
For most part of the game before Iwobi’s introduction, the Eagles forward players had resorted to more of physical play which did not help much. Apparently, the pressure of the occasion had gotten to the Eagles and with the time ticking away, they grew anxious which led the forwards to waste the few chances coming their way in the desperation to score. But Iwobi refreshed the Eagles with his calmness, creativity and dexterity, he did not hold on to the ball unnecessarily.
Iwobi allowed the ball to do most of the running rather than he himself running with the ball, like most of his teammates were doing earlier. That was what made all the difference. The lesson here is that sometimes, it is not all about brawn but brain.
With Iwobi’s 73rd minute strike, Nigeria became the first African country to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year, with a game to spare having attained an unassailable 13 points from 5 games. That will provide coach Rohr the valuable opportunity to try out the other players on the bench in what has now become an inconsequential game away to Algeria next month.
Thank you, Alex Iwobi for this crucial goal. Thanks for silencing the boastful Zambians. Russia 2018, here we come!