Kelechi Nwakali’s exquisitely struck second-half freekick and Taiwo Awoniyi’s added time cherry topping ensured Nigeria came from behind to earn a 3-1 victory over Zambia at the Al Salam Stadium, Cairo on Tuesday that keep alive their hopes of making the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Paston Daka had given the Zambians the lead after twelve minutes at the Al Salam Stadium but Orji Okonkwo guided home from an Ibrahim Sunusi corner kick to restore parity.
Kelechi Nwakali then put Nigeria ahead for the first time in the competition in the 65th minute before Taiwo Awoniyi made sure of the points in added time after he sprung the offside trap with the Zambians upfield to latch on to Azubuike Okechukwu’s long pass and slot past Mangani Banda who was caught in no man’s land.
The win moves Nigeria who welcomed captain Azubuike Okechukwu and striker Taiwo Awoniyi back to the team after they missed the opening 1-0 defeat to Ivory Coast up to second in Group B on three points, a point behind South Africa who beat the Ivorians earlier in the day.
Needing a victory to ensure their hopes of defending their title and securing qualification for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo remained intact, the U23 Eagles started in the worst possible fashion going behind after just twelve minutes to Patson Daka’s goal.
That goal meant the U23 Eagles stood on the verge of a humiliating ouster after just two matches but perhaps recognising what was at stake, the Olympic Eagles roused themselves and were level just four minutes later.
Forward Ibrahim Sunusi restored to the starting lineup after starting the opening day loss to Ivory Coast on the bench, swung in a perfectly struck corner kick which was guided home by Orji Okonkwo.
If the thought was that the goal – Nigeria’s first in the tournament – would catalyze the Olympic Eagles to kick ahead, it was a solely mistaken as Nigeria struggled to knit passes together or create any chance of note with Taiwo Awoniyi isolated upfront.
Zambia were the more enterprising team, thriving off long balls over the top of the Nigerian defence backline which the defenders struggled to deal with.
Nigeria, however, gradually grew into the game as the first period wore off and could have had a penalty in the 40th minute when Awoniyi was hacked down in the box but the referee waved play on perhaps aided by the striker’s lack of complaint.
Awoniyi then headed tamely at the goalkeeper when he really should have scored after Orji found him with an exquisite cross two minutes before halftime as the half ended with both sides level.
The second period took a while to get going with both sides struggling to carve out any meaningful chances.
Zambia had two good chances to restore their lead when they broke on the counter from a Nigerian corner kick in the 56th minute only for Daka to shoot straight at Abubakar and in the 62nd minute when Ngosa Sunzu’s long-range strike whistled narrowly past Abubakar’s righthand post.
Nigeria were ahead three minutes later when Nwakali dusted himself up after he was fouled in front of the box to guide home a sweetly struck strike that left Banda perplexed.
With time running out, the Zambians who had drawn their opening game against South Africa increasingly got more frantic and piled the pressure on the U23 Eagles who defended in numbers and looked to hit on the counter.
The strategy proved effective and provided a glimpse of how much Okechukwu and Awoniyi were missed in the loss to Ivory Coast.
Okechukwu won the ball deep in Nigeria’s half with nine Zambians camped in and found the Awoniyi who shrugged off the solitary Zambian defender left in the opposition half and calmly slotted past the onrushing Banda to leave Imama Amapakabo beseeching the heavens on his knees and the Nigerian bench in deep throes of rapturous delight.
The U23 Eagles face group leaders South Africa next on Friday, 15 November and will qualify to the knockouts with an outright victory. A draw might still prove enough depending on the outcome of the encounter between Zambia who have one point and Ivory Coast who have three points but have an inferior goals difference to Nigeria.