Nigeria bounced into reckoning at the 34th Africa Cup of Nations with a lone-goal victory over hosts Ivory Coast at the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara on Sunday, which was enough to pick up three valuable points and push the Elephants down to third place.
Before kick-off, both teams knew they had much to do as defeat would take steam out of either team’s campaign, following Equatorial Guinea’s manful 4-2 defeat of Guinea Bissau’s Wild Dogs in the day’s earlier game at the same venue.
Nigeria was most pressed to turn up with the goods having only drawn with Equatorial Guinea’s Thunder in their first match on Sunday, and they were not shy to make their intention known, only that Victor Osimhen heaved over the sticks from a great pass by Samuel Chukwueze in the 8th minute.
In an early warning that it would be the end-to-end encounter it turned out to be, the Eagles were in an anxious moment a minute later, but goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali was on hand to deflect to corner after Zaidu Sanusi’s weird header put the defence under pressure.
On the quarter-hour, Nwabali had to be alert as the Ivorians swept on the Eagles’ rear and Ibrahima Sangare fired. Eight minutes later, William Ekong checkmated an Ivorian onslaught, and at the other end, Samuel Chukwueze was checkmated by Ousmane Diomande. In the 31st minute, Nwabali saved from Seko Fofana and the rebound was wasted by the Elephants.
Nine minutes into the second half, referee Mustapha Ghorbal’s attention was drawn by the Video Assistant Referee to a foul on Africa Player of the Year Osimhen by Diomande in the Ivorian box. It was a penalty to Nigeria, and on-field captain William Ekong, who has provided much-needed stability to the Nigerian defence at this tournament, stepped up with assurance and blasted it past goalkeeper Yahia Fofana into the net.
Sangare, Seko Fofana, Franck Kessie, Jeremie Boga, Christian Kouakou Kouame and Jean-Philippe Krasso all tried their best to put the Elephants back into the game, but the Ekong-led Nigeria defence remained impenetrable.
Chukwueze and substitute Bright Osayi-Samuel had gilt-edged opportunities to extend Nigeria’s lead but bungled things, and in the 73rd minute, Nwabali was again on the alert to foil an onslaught by the Elephants.
Victory took the Super Eagles to joint-first in group A, only behind Equatorial Guinea on goal difference, while the Elephants sank to third position and must beat Thunder on Monday to guarantee a place in the Round of 16.
On the same day, the Super Eagles will take on the Wild Dogs of Guinea Bissau, needing only a point to be assured of a place in the Round of 16.