Captain Mikel John Obi said on Sunday that a united and focused Super Eagles, and a supportive Nigeria Football Federation, will guarantee the three –time African champions a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals.
The Chelsea midfield ace told thenff.com aboard the ARIK Air plane on the flight back from Ndola that team solidarity and the maturity of the technical crew have forged a new spirit in camp, and that the victory over Zambia at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium on Sunday that has propelled the Super Eagles to the top of the so –called ‘Group of Death’ is the beginning of great things to come.
“I have belief that we can reach new heights with this team. The boys are so committed that it makes you happy. The coaching crew is made up of very matured and brilliant people who respect the players. We are onto a good thing.”
Nigeria won a competitive away game for the first time in 23 months as Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho scored before Collins Mbesuma pulled one back in the Zambian Copperbelt capital.
Manchester City of England prodigy Iheanacho has now scored in each of his last four matches for Nigeria: against Mali in France; Luxembourg in Luxembourg City; Tanzania in Uyo and; Zambia in Ndola.
A convivial atmosphere prevailed inside the aircraft during the 4 hour-and-22-minutes flight back to Abuja, and the celebration mood heightened seconds after landing as players, team officials and other officials learnt that Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions had forced Algeria to a 1-1 draw in the other match of Group B in Blida.
“We have a very good chance to qualify for the World Cup if we keep our heads and play at our best level. Each and every one of us is determined to go to the World Cup. Now that we are top of the table, we have to remain there.”
The Zambians had hoped to get Nigeria’s Europe –based contingent rendered weak and dehydrated with an early afternoon start (2.30pm), but the Eagles approached the match in a matured manner, not engaging in too much running in the first half-hour, and then taking their chances without blinking.
At Saturday’s match coordination meeting, the NFF had requested for water break periods in view of the early start, and the match commissioner, Alhaji Nuru Deen Jawula from Ghana, said he would think about it. Eventually, it was not that necessary, as the Eagles coped well and thwarted the Chipolopolo in front of their fans.
A friend who works with the Football Association of Zambia informed thenff.com that 50,000 spectators must have squeezed into the 43,000 –capacity Levy Mwanawasa Stadium. And with President Edgar Chagwa Lungu (said to be a great fan of Eagles’ captain Mikel Obi and assistant captain Ahmed Musa) arriving a full hour before kick off, the arena vibrated endlessly.
The quintet of goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, Stopilla Sunzu, Nathan Sinkala, Rainford Kalaba and Collins Mbesuma were familiar faces in the Zambian starting line-up. But Fwayo Tembo, Chisamba Lungu and Winston Kalengo are also known to be tough customers.
They tried to run hard and wear the Eagles down in the 35 -degree heat, but after surviving the first half-hour, the Nigerian attack stepped up a gear and scored two brilliant goals in 10 minutes.
Indeed, the Chipolopolo created more chances, and would not forgive Eagles’ goalie Carl Ikeme for denying them so many times. As early as the second minute, Ikeme pushed onto the crossbar a shot from Tembo, and went on to make eight excellent saves including stopping two close range bullet headers. In fact, skipper Kalaba thought he had equalized in the 40th minute, after meeting a pull out by Sinkala with a firm header, only for Ikeme to block.
With the job seemingly concluded in the first 45 minutes, much against the plan of the Chipolopolo, the Eagles could afford to take things easy in the second half and simply plan for counter attacks. Ideye could have made it three if he had opted for a header as Iheanacho found him in the box, but he attempted a bicycle kick instead.
Mweene also had to be alert to a scorching shot from Iwobi and a dipping from Eagles’ skipper Mikel Obi.
In the end, it was a sweet victory. It was the first time Nigeria would win a World Cup qualifying match away from home since defeating Ethiopia’s Walya Antelopes 2-1 in Addis Ababa in October 2013.
The Super Eagles’ next game is against the Fennecs of Algeria, at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Uyo on Saturday, 12th November.