Nigeria on Saturday defeated Benin in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier played in Porto Novo, with a stoppage-time winner from second-half substitute Paul Onuachu sending Super Eagles fans into raptures and shattering Beninese hearts.
In a game that wasn’t entirely played behind closed doors, as hundreds of Beninese fans, contrary to the rules stipulated by CAF, managed to find their way into the Stade Charles De Gaulle, the Super Eagles had to wait until the very dead to confirm their superiority over the Squirrels.
With the clock ticking down, a cross into a packed Benin penalty area landed at the feet of Victor Osimhen, but his shot was kept out by goalkeeper Saturnin Allagbe only for the rebound to fall onto the path of Onuachu who headed into a gaping net to win the game for the Super Eagles who had earlier in the day booked their place at next year’s AFCON after Lesotho and Sierra Leone played out to a goalless draw in Maseru.
For Benin and their coach Michel Dussuyer, who suffered their first loss at home in eight years, they will need to get a result against Sierra Leone on Tuesday at the National Stadium in Freetown to secure a spot at the 2022 AFCON.
Super Eagles Coach Gernot Rohr would undoubtedly be the happier of the two coaches but he would no doubt still be wondering how his side failed to find the back of the net until the very last minute of stoppage time.
And a lot of it had to do with some good, and sometimes fortuitous, goalkeeping by man of the match and Benin first-choice goalkeeper Allagbe.
In the 7th minute, Allagbe was on hand to parry Samuel Chukwueze’s goal-bound left-footed curler from 20 yards out to safety.
Eighteen minutes later, the France-based goalie had to be at his best to stop Osimhen from putting Nigeria in front after a one-two combination with Kelechi Iheanacho put the Napoli striker through on goal. The outcome could have been different though if Osimhen had opted against taking a first-time shot when he could have taken at least one more touch before shooting at the 27-year-old shot stopper’s goal.
Then right at the end of the first half, Allagbe pulled off a blinder of a save from Henry Onyekuru. A brilliant piece of play by Zaidu Sanusi saw the FC Porto wingback waltz his way past Benin fullback Youssouf Assogba before floating a cross into the penalty area which Onyekuru connected onto with his head only to see it parried over the crossbar by Allagbe.
The second half started as the first half ended with Nigeria in the ascendency. And the Super Eagles almost went ahead a minute after the restart but Chukwueze, in hindsight, would feel Onyekuru was better placed to take a shot with only the Beninese goalie and sections of a gaping post at their mercy.
It wasn’t all Nigeria though, as Steve Mounie, totally against the run of play, almost put Benin ahead with a lobbed effort that only missed the goal of an advancing Maduka Okoye by inches.
The goal attempt by the Beninese seemed to wake the Eagles up from their temporary slumber as Osimhen, after bulldozing his way into the Squirrels’ penalty area, saw his shot parried onto the upright by Allagbe who, while still sprawled on the turf would be delighted that the subsequent rebound by Onyekuru was blasted well over a gaping post.
Mounie and Okoye weren’t done with their emerging battle though as the Nigerian goalie needed to be alert to save a header from the France-based attacker that seemed to be heading towards the bottom left-hand side of his goal.
Rohr then pulled out Iheanacho for Onuachu midway through the half. And after Allagbe pulled off what already jubilant Beninese fans thought was the save that would book their ticket to AFCON 2022, up leapt Onuachu to head home the winner and ensure the Super Eagles sailed back home to Nigeria on a jubilant note ahead of their next match on Tuesday against Lesotho in Lagos.
Bon voyage Super Eagles!