Alex Iwobi’s strike ensured Nigeria beat Zambia 1-0 on Saturday to become the first African nation to qualify for the World Cup.
It was a triumphant occasion in Uyo, but also a frustrating one, as the Super Eagles lacked the cohesion they demonstrated against Cameroon during the last international break.
In this feature, Colin Udoh runs down the five hot talking points to emerge from Nigeria’s showdown with the Chipolopolo.
1. The Super Eagles extend their World Cup qualifying consistency
Irrespective of their near unblemished record in the qualifiers so far, there remained many sceptical Nigerians who still did not quite believe the team would see this out.
The reason for this fear appeared to be a layover from the failure to qualify for two Africa Nations Cup tournaments, and a recent home defeat by South Africa.
In actual fact however, there should have been little reason to worry.
The Super Eagles currently have the best World Cup qualifying record in Africa over the last 20 years.
Since qualifying for their first tournament in 1994, the Eagles have only missed one of the last seven, when they were pipped to Germany 2006 by Angola’s head-to-head advantage. Going into the game against Zambia, they carried a World Cup-qualifying unbeaten streak of 35 consecutive matches, the second in the world behind Spain.
Now, that is consistency.
2. Echiejile remains Nigeria fans of enduring class
Elderson Echiejile has taken plenty of flack in the last few years, and most of it has been undeserving.
He has had a few poor games, yes, but overall he’s been one of the more consistent players on the squad.
Players have been tested at left-back as alternatives have been assessed, but none have quite managed to dislodge Elderson with any permanence, and on Saturday he showed why.
Whether spurred by the imminent presence of Ola Aina, or a determination to make the World Cup team after injury ruled him out of the last one at the last minute, or just a plain resolve to shut his critics up, Echiejile played out of his skin against Zambia.
He delivered the kind of showing that fans had grown accustomed to during his early forays into the team.
Apart from Shehu Abdullahi, who marked his immense performance with an assist, the former Monaco man was arguably the Super Eagles’ outstanding player on the day.
It was a game where both full-backs — considered the Super Eagles’ weaker positions in defence — picked up the gauntlet from their critics, and answered the doubters in resounding fashion.
3. Aina was made for green and white
Speaking of full-backs, Ola Aina has been with the Super Eagles barely three months since he switched allegiance from England.
However, the young thoroughbred looked every sinewy inch exactly that – a thoroughbred.
Uncompromising in repelling attacks, confident on the ball, and adventurous bombing forward, he almost set up a goal with a superb rapier-like charge down the left channel and cross.
It may have been his debut, but at no point did the defender look out of place on the pitch. His composure was exemplary, and he appears tailor-made for a long future with the national side.
4. Onazi key to midfield control
Like Echiejile, Onazi has endured his share of vilification in recent years. Admittedly, he doesn’t have the passing range of some of his fellow midfielders, but it’s too easy to overlook the sterling work he does in the heart of the park – hunting the ball, neutralising opponents, and preventing them from establishing a rhythm.
That is a bit unfair to the Trabzonspor man.
Almost every other player on the field can feel free in their self expression mostly because of Onazi’s uncompromising style of plugging holes as soon as they appear…sometimes, even before they do. When he went off on Saturday, those gaps started popping up all over the field.
His replacement Mikel Agu is a more technical player, but he could not replicate Onazi’s unerring, hole-spotting radar, or play-breaking tackling.
It left the Super Eagles midfield looking ragged and unable to effectively provide support for Odion Ighalo upfront.
Could John Ogu not have done a better job than Agu at this point in the game?
5. Rohr remains ’50-50′ on subs
It is hard to question the decisions of a coach who has four wins from five and has secured a World Cup ticket with one game to spare, but Gernot Rohr’s overseeing of Nigeria’s campaign hasn’t quite been perfect.
In Yaounde, after subbing off Odion Ighalo against Cameroon, Rohr opted to switch things up in front and bring on Kelechi Iheanacho.
The Leicester City man’s goal record with the Eagles is frightening, but he has been off the boil for more than a few weeks and has played little to no football in that time.
Why introduce him in ahead of Anthony Nwakaeme, a regular at his club, but still to make his Nigeria debut?
The Israel-based forward is similar in many respects to Ighalo and would have continued the ex-Watford man’s physical battle against the Cameroon defenders.
As mentioned above, the decision to introduce the inexperienced Agu rather than Ogu, and the calming influence that he contributes, was also a questionable decision.
He’d surely have done better in that holding role than the man who Rohr did ultimately turn to. In fairness to the German coach, his Moses Simon-Alex Iwobi swap was inspired, and eventually guaranteed the goal and win, but his in-game decision-making may need work ahead of the World Cup.