CAIRO – The Super Eagles of Nigeria needed a late goal from substitute Odion Ighalo to clinch a narrow win over Burundi who were making their debut at the Africa Cup of Nations at the 20,000 capacity Alexandria Stadium in Egypt.
Ighalo curled home in the 77th minute after left-back Ola Aina had found him with a clever flick.
The Super Eagles were making a return to Africa’s football showpiece after missing the last two editions but would have to improve on the basis of their showing against The Swallows who were unlucky to have lost the Group B opener.
Both sides had gone in level at the break but it was Burundi, the lowest ranked team in the tournament who had the better chances to take the lead as they belied their lowly status to more than match the three-times AFCON winners.
Eagles coach Gernot Rohr handed a start to Paul Onuachu, the 25-year old gangling striker who scored 22 goals in 40 appearances for FC Midtjylland but it was a decision that proved unfruitful as the striker had a game to forget before he was eventually hooked off for Ighalo in the second half.
Onuachu though had a couple of chances in the first half but failed to trouble 19-year old Jonathan Nahimana in goal for Burundi. Burundi had the best chance of the first half with Amissi Cedric ghosting in behind to hit a marvelous volley which Akpeyi did well to save.
Prior to that chance, the Super Eagles had bossed possession but Burundi found confidence and began to assert themselves.
Captain Saido Berahino nearly profited from Troost Ekong’s momentarily lapse to run in behind in the 17th minute but the Udinese defender recovered well to snuff out the danger.
Nigeria were also poor in the transitions and wingers Samuel Chukwueze and Alex Iwobi were regularly thwarted but Iwobi provided the best skill of the match to find Chukwueze in the box only for the Villareal winger to hit his shot high and wide in the box.
A lacklustre Nigeria went into the break level but returned with more purpose in the second half especially after Ahmed Musa was introduced for captain Mikel Obi. Musa’s introduction added much-needed bite and pace to the attack with the forward making regular incursions on the left side.
Rohr then sprang Ighalo from the bench for the ineffectual Onuachu and the striker who top-scored for the Eagles in the qualifiers put his stamp on the proceedings with a perfectly executed curling shot to give Nigeria a winning start on their return to Africa’s football showpiece after six years.
Madagascar take on Guinea in the 9 pm kick off.