Nigeria came from behind to claim a thoroughly deserved victory over Lesotho, but required the rub of the green at key moments in the game
For the second time in four days, the Super Eagles produced a sterling comeback against a side they would have expected to beat anyway.
Looked at in that way, it seems a lot less remarkable than it actually is. It is in the details that so much comes to the fore, and none of it is ho-hum. Indeed, the win over Lesotho was characterized almost entirely by paradox.
Nigeria once again set up in the 4-3-3 shape that now appears to be the staple post-Africa Cup of Nations, and were far and away the dominant team in the piece at the Setsoto Stadium. After overcoming the initial shot to the gut of the Lesotho goal in the 11th minute, Gernot Rohr’s side found a foothold in the game, and were comfortably the better side from about the 20th minute.
As soon as Samuel Chukwueze and (to a lesser extent) Moses Simon figured out where the space was – behind the Lesotho midfield – the Super Eagles began to create danger on a consistent basis. That was the key to bringing Victor Osimhen to life, although it is hardly the case that the Lille man needs too much of an invitation.
In the end, there was a distinct sense that the 4-2 scoreline flattered Lesotho to a great degree, so stark was the superiority the visitors held. Not even a hard, bouncy artificial surface could completely detract from that: for players like Joe Aribo and Alex Iwobi, it was a greater struggle, but one which they duly overcame. The latter even scored, and that noticeably raised his confidence, as well as his performance levels on the night.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the win, however, was the quiet, steely assurance with which Nigeria went about clawing back the deficit. In the win over Benin, the emphasis remained on combining quickly in wide areas and low crosses into the box; here, there were no ungainly hoofs either, simply a commitment to playing in the same fashion as was intended, confident that it would be borne out.
This suggests that the team now has total clarity to its objectives.
However, in eulogizing the comeback, and the manner of it, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge there was a great deal that fell Nigeria’s way.
The rub of the green is a vague, fickle concept, and on the day it was the Super Eagles getting the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Some might be minded to chalk that up to big team bias, and maybe there was an element of that. There were just so many instances where a different call might have swung the game.
The timing of Iwobi’s equalizer was pivotal, as it came at a time when Nigeria had just begun to get a foothold in the game. It essentially steeled their resolve. How might the encounter have panned out had referee Joshua Bondo decided to call an infringement on Osimhen’s challenge to win the ball on the edge of the Lesotho box?
At 2-1, yet another huge call: Chidozie Awaziem looked to have tugged his man back, denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Bondo’s call was again sympathetic to the Nigeria cause, as was the linesman’s when, just moments later, Osimhen appeared to be ahead of the last defender as he tapped home Ola Aina’s cross for 3-1.
Had Awaziem been sent off, for all that the three-time African champions had been the dominant side, the entire complexion of the tie might have changed completely. Football hinges on precisely those moments.
And yet, on the balance of play, it is also fair to say that Rohr’s side made their own luck.
Two games have brought more than just six points for Nigeria. All over the pitch, the marginal gains are aggregating to produce, for the first time since the German took charge, a national team with a defined identity and a guiding set of convictions.
One not even a diabolical playing surface, early deficits or refereeing uncertainty can gainsay.