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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2019: Nigeria's Odion Ighalo makes amends to punish Burundi

13:03 BST 23/06/2019
Ighalo - Super Eagles
Almost a year on from his famous miss, the Nigeria striker came off the bench and travelled back in time to give Super Eagles lift-off

It took a lot longer than most would have guessed, but sometimes it's hard to tell precisely what you have been missing until you find it.

So it proved on Saturday night in Alexandria: as Odion Ighalo ran on to Ola Aina's backheel, opened up his body, and shot just inside the far post, it became clear. As David Tomlinson once said, it was simply necessary to "do it with a flair".

Until that moment, the mechanics of the performance had been largely fine. This, after all, was a team almost arrived at by elimination, rather than selection. As an undisclosed illness decimated the ranks, it became a question of who was available. 

As a consequence of that circumstance, the team sported a few surprise elements. Shehu Abdullahi had played no part in the preparatory friendlies, but started here in place of the indisposed Jamilu Collins; he would himself only last till half-time. 

Samuel Chukwueze made his competitive bow on the international stage, the beneficiary of the misfortune that befell Samuel Kalu only the day before. Ahmed Musa was left out of the starting lineup for Nigeria in a match of consequence for the first time since June 2018.

In that light, some dysfunction would have been understandable. Instead, the functions were fairly efficient: at half-time, Nigeria had dominated possession, eked out a couple of decent chances, and it was difficult to pinpoint one horrid individual performance.

The centre-backs had been solid, bar a momentary lapse by William Troost-Ekong to let Cedric Amissi in for what should have been the opener. The midfielders had held down the middle of the pitch. Alex Iwobi had drifted in with intent, and Samuel Chukwueze had led his full-back a merry dance. Paul Onuachu had held the ball up and won a couple of headers.

Every department had done its job.

Yet, the game remained scoreless.

In the end, it took someone going beyond the call of duty, and an unlikely someone at that: Aina, for all that he is clearly a full-back of impeccable stock, might never play a more stupendous pass in his career.

That moment combined with the crucial, but blindingly obvious substitution (there's little point to a targetman when your best midfield runner is stationed in front of his own defence) of Ighalo for Onuachu, would finally break the Burundian resistance.

It would also break something of a duck for the Shanghai Shenhua striker: his first in an actual tournament for Nigeria. For so long the midwife, it seemed like the decision to start Onuachu in his stead might be punitive – he had been unable to demonstrate sufficient sharpness, by all accounts, against Senegal in last weekend's friendly.

Here, he did.

He barely made it back onside, before spinning back into the space to receive, disorienting the defender. It was a chance eerily identical to one he missed against Argentina at the World Cup last summer, where he hit his finish into the body of the imposing Franco Armani.

In the aftermath of that moment, the clamour to drop him from the national team reached unprecedented heights. Instead, Gernot Rohr kept faith with him, and he has gone some way toward making amends almost a year later.

A dollop of genius, and a healthy helping of time travel came together in Alexandria to leave the German smiling like he got the cream.