Nigeria, the Champions of Africa, kicked off their post-Afcon campaign in Calabar with a disappointing World Cup qualifying draw at home to Kenya. Despite early confidence on the pitch and in the stands, the home side failed to spark—they were left stunned as Francis Kahata gave the Harambee Stars the lead with a sweetly struck freekick towards the end of the first half. To the immense relief of the home supporters, Nnamdi Oduamadi sealed a late, stoppage time equaliser, getting Naija out of jail, and breaking Kenyan hearts.
Stephen Keshi’s forewarning that the occasion for partying was done, and his insistence that the side were totally focused on seizing a place in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup were bore out early on, as Naija looked urgent and progressive. This was tempered this with the composure and maturity that is increasingly becoming a trademark of this young side.
Obafemi Martins will have been acutely aware of the significance of his latest opportunity with the national side. The experienced frontman, realising that future opportunities may well be limited, was keen to impress. He had little to work with in the early stages, a number of long balls forward from the full-backs drifting aimlessly past him.
Many in attendance were keen to see what the impact of Victor Moses would be following his lightning performances in South Africa. The Chelsea man didn’t disappoint, and went on a few lively runs early on, giving the Kenyan defenders something to think about. He occasionally swapped flanks with Ideye Brown, the latter linking well with surprise inclusion Solomon Kwambe when positioned on the right.
Despite dominating the early stages, Nigeria’s forwards were either thwarted by Arnold Origi in the Kenyan goal, or found themselves ruled offside.
Against the run of play, it was the visitors that took the lead; Elderson brought down his man, leading to a dangerous freekick. Francis Kahata made no mistake and curled a delightful finish past Vincent Enyeama. It was a glorious way for the 21-year-old to mark his fifth appearance for the national side, and the goal left the home fans stunned.
Kenya preserved their lead into the half time break, despite Nigeria being afforded a glorious chance late on. A freekick within the box was lined up by John Obi Mikel, but instead of attempting a shot, the midfielder laid the set piece off to Sunday Mba who blasted towards the net. By the time the Afcon hero got his shot off, the Kenyan wall had advanced enough to stymie the danger, and it had to go down as an opportunity lost for the home side.
Nigeria went in at half time deflated, a far cry from the all-conquering Super Eagles we saw in South Africa earlier in the year.
The second half continued much as the first had ended, with Nigeria enjoying the lion’s share of possession, camping out in the Kenyan half, but ultimately failing to create the meaningful chances that their dominance suggested they ought to have done. One glorious opportunity fell to Obafemi Martins however, but despite Moses’s sumptuous delivery, the former Levante man could only fire his header wide of Origi’s post.
The striker, more than anyone, knew that it was an opportunity lost.
As the game progressed, Kenya demonstrated that they were content to merely preserve their lead. One free kick halfway into the Nigerian half only prompted three men to advance, it was a clear indicator as to their (lack of) ambitions.
It began to look like Nigeria’s 13 match unbeaten streak against Kenya would be coming to an end, whilst Adel Amrouche, enjoying his first game as coach, looked forward to a famous victory and a major personal triumph. Simultaneously, the visitors appeared to grow in stature defensively—consistently thwarting Nigeria’s attackers and closing down any brief window of opportunity that might emerge.
Amrouche was sent to the stands late on after exchanging a few choice words with the linesman, he watched on in anguish as the unthinkable happened. Nnamdi Oduamadi profiting from a 6-yard scramble to preserve Nigieria's blushes on the 93rd minute. A tough reality for the visitors, but it may be Stephen Keshi and his men who have more questions to answer after an uninspiring performance.
The result threatened to undermine the good work and confidence forged through Nigeria’s Afcon victory, instead, it just about preserves Nigeria's place as the dominant force in their group. The Super Eagles will need to improve on this in games to come.