Nigeria became the first African country to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals after a 74th minute goal by substitute Alex Iwobi gave the Super Eagles a 1-0 win over Zambia in Uyo on Saturday.
Pre –match previews had designated the top-of-the-table showdown at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in South-South Nigeria as a big battle, and there was no disappointment for football purists as there were chances for both teams and it could have gone either way. Battles don’t come any bigger.
Resurgent Zambia remained the only team in the race that could topple Nigeria in the so –called Group of Death after Matchday 4, following home-and-way wins over Algeria. They came to Uyo to fight, and they did fought.
They knew the Eagles, who needed the minimum win to reach the 32 –finals in Russia, would come hard at them, and that signal was not long in coming as defender Abdullahi Shehu, voted Big Bull Rice Man of the Match at the end, made an inviting pull –out that goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene held firm in the very first minute.
After this, Zambia won the first two corner kicks, but then a smooth move by Elderson Echiejile and Victor Moses resulted in Nigeria’s own first corner kick. In the 15th minute, Zambia escaped down the left and Chisamba Lungu’s hard drive flew past Ikechukwu Ezenwa’s right hand post.
Stopilla Sunzu, Ziyo Tembo and Fackson Kapumbu were proving difficult for the Eagles to break in the Zambian rear. Odion Ighalo missed a fine cross by Moses Simon and after Ogenyi Onazi showed pace to snatch the ball, Mweene was again there to thwart the opportunity.
That was the last contribution by Onazi, who got injured and was replaced by Mikel Agu. Fashion Sakala should have done better than heave the ball above Ezenwa when through on goal in the 32nd minute, and in the 36th minute, the Chipolopolo came really close when Enock Mwepu’s rasping drive forced Ezenwa into a full length save.
Nigeria captain Mikel Obi fought hard all over the pitch, and could have gotten the curtain raiser with seven minutes left in the first half when he cleverly won the ball on the edge of the box, only for his shot to drift wide. Just before the break, an excellent move by Moses and Ighalo saw Moses Simon with a scissors kick that flew over the sticks.
Two minutes into the second half, Leon Balogun tested Mweene from a Moses’ cross, and 10 minutes later, Wilfred Ndidi nodded powerfully but Mweene parried.
Iwobi, who scored the first in the 2-1 defeat of Zambia in Ndola in October last year, came in for Moses Simon in the 65th minute. Nine minutes later, he was in the right place at the right time as Victor Moses drove hard into the box and squared for Abdullahi Shehu to center for the Arsenal FC youngster to toe –poke home for the only goal of the match.
Victory took Nigeria to an unassailable 13 points, with Zambia stuck at seven going into the last round of matches in November.
Russia 2018 will be Nigeria’s sixth FIFA World Cup appearance, but this is only the second time the Super Eagles would qualify with a match to spare. The only other time was in 1997, when they had assured qualification before the final match away to Guinea in Conakry.