Holders Nigeria will have the opportunity to defend their Africa U23 Cup of Nations title come November in Egypt, after the Olympic Eagles secured a robust 5-0 win over their Sudanese rivals in the final qualifying leg at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba on Tuesday.
A brace by Ndifreke Effiong and one each by Taiwo Awoniyi, Sunday Faleye and Sunusi Ibrahim ensured a 5-1 aggregate win for the 1996 Olympic champions, and they became the fourth team after hosts Egypt, Zambia, and South Africa to earn berths in the final scheduled for 8th – 22nd November.
Having wasted glorious opportunities to be on the scoresheet in the first leg in Omdurman on Thursday last week, the charges of Imama Amapakabo were in a hurry to get things going in Asaba, and Taiwo Awoniyi headed powerfully into the net after goalkeeper Mohamed Adam could only punch a fierce shot by skipper Azubuike Okechukwu in the 10th minute.
Three minutes later, a teasing cross by Nwakali was met by the hustling Awoniyi but the ball went over the bar. Anthony Izuchukwu, who won plaudits for the composure that himself and Olisah Ndah forged in Nigeria’s central defence, headed a corner kick by Muyiwa Olabiran over the bar after 20 minutes.
In the 26th minute, Nigeria got the second goal when Ndifreke Effiong met defender John Lazarus’ pull-out with a bullet header, goalkeeper Adam unable to do anything to stop it.
In one of the rare moments that goalkeeper Adamu Abubakar was called for duty, he smoothly cuddled a header by Eid Mugadam Abakar on the half-hour.
Three minutes later, it could have been three for Nigeria as Sunusi Ibrahim went on a jaw-dropping solo run which ended with a fierce drive, only for Adam to punch the ball away for a corner. Two minutes before recess, Effiong got his second and Nigeria’s third, lashing in to the far corner after a sweet team move.
In the second half, the defending champions fully imposed their authority on the game, with delightful touches, good positioning, brilliant runs, purposeful passes, and meaningful finishing.
Goalkeeper Adam, defenders Hussein Mohamed Hussein, Baghdad Ibrahim, Ammar Mohamed Kannou and Ahmed Ibrahim Ahmed were overstretched, while midfielders Musab Elsiddiq, Kamal Eldin and Siddiq Mohamed found Kelechi Nwakali and Azubuike Okechukwu in the Nigerian middle too smooth and silky to handle.
Nwakali, who missed the first leg encounter, sprayed passes effortlessly and got past his opponents without breaking sweat, and contributed immensely to Tuesday’s win. In the 56th minute, his corner kick almost went in for the fourth goal off Olabiran, who then wasted a glorious chance to increase the tally on the hour mark by blasting over the woodwork.
In the 66th minute, a well-weighted chip by Effiong was headed into the net by substitute Sunday Faleye, three minutes after he replaced Olabiran. Three minutes later, Faleye turned provider, crossing for Sunusi Ibrahim to score a well-deserved goal.
Victory for the Olympic Eagles meant no Nigerian team has lost at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, with the Super Eagles beating Seychelles (AFCON qualifier) and Egypt (friendly) and drawing with Uganda and Zimbabwe in friendlies, while the Olympic Eagles had earlier pounded Libya 4-0 in the earlier round of the U23 AFCON qualification race.