Nigeria's World Cup ticket delivered with positive performance

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The Super Eagles were put on the back foot - at home - by the scary Zambians, but sprung up with a good fight to deliver the ticket to Russia

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Perhaps it wasn't the fairytale ending that Nigeria wanted-it certainly wasn't a performance to match the 4-1 demolition of Cameroon-but by the final whistle in Uyo on Saturday, Nigeria's qualifying campaign had definitely been worth every struggle and heart-in-the-mouth moment.

Ultimately, they'd achieved their goal and secured a World Cup ticket.

“In five games, we have four victories and one draw," Gernot Rohr told journalists. "[It was] a result I didn’t believe because of the teams in this group."

Indeed, while Nigeria largely negotiated the 'Group of Death' with aplomb, they were frustrated at times against Zambia. They appeared destined for a stalemate with the Chipolopolo-until the intervention of Alex Iwobi-although as they say, winning ugly can often be a hallmark of a great team.

Alex Iwobi of Nigeria

In the past, this Nigeria team have occasionally folded when under pressure, but here, they held on for the vital goal, which came 17 minutes from time.

“It was a very difficult game and we didn’t underrate this team because we saw on video what they did to Algeria two times and against Cameroon,” Rohr added. “We knew it would be a very tough game and they gave us a chase.

"We didn’t want to concede a goal and we were lucky to get the goal which took us to Russia.”

The 1-0 victory over an ambitious and largely improved Zambian team saw them drift far away from their habit of getting at least a goal in the first 45 minutes during the campaign. They enjoyed 46 percent of the possession, way less than they would have been predicted prior to the encounter at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, and were occasionally overrun in midfield.

Nigeria vs Zambia

After laying the marker in the opening minutes, the roles were swapped.

Wedson Nyirenda’s men dominated proceedings while the hosts had to rely on fast breaks. Odion Ighalo and Moses Simon failed to convert chances from those moves, while Victor Moses, sometimes wasteful in possession, allowed the visitors to put some pressure on the home defence.

The withdrawal of an injured Ogenyi Onazi for Mikel Agu on the half-hour mark was a change that birthed more tension in Nigeria’s half.

The Turkey-based midfielder had faltered and disrupted the calmness in midfield when brought on for a tiring Mikel Obi against Cameroon in Yaounde with the team a goal up, and his introduction had a similar effect here.

Ogenyi Onazi

The Zambians headed into the encounter on the back of morale-boosting victories over Algeria, and the fact that an upset would help them retain chances of qualifying for the quadrennial showpiece was enough motivation for them to up their game.

Having camped in Ghana for some needed acclimatization prior to the clash, the southern Africans mounted the pressure as they sought to snare a third straight win, but were met with resistance as Ikechukwu Ezenwa’s confidence boosted as he continues to improve in the international arena.

In the second half, Agu had begun to settle into the contest, and the midfield was a lot more organised, which allowed Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi to control proceedings.

Nigeria needed to find a goal and the introduction of an Iwobi for the less effective Moses Simon - who was well shackled by the Zambians - added verve in the final third.

Moses Simon

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Aside from his goal, the Arsenal man - in his usual style - always looked to combine well with his attacking teammates, and struck an improved understanding with right-back Abdullahi Shehu, who contributed the decisive assist.

Another positive change was the introduction of Ola Aina for Elderson Echiejile.

It was significant for two reasons; the versatile Hull City defender turned into a fully fledged Nigeria international, and provided competition for the latter as he showed himself as an enterprising outlet. Also, he would have capped his debut with an assist had Moses not outrun the ball.

When the dust settles on the Super Eagles' qualification for Russia, Gernot Rohr can look back on this fixture and take many positives from Nigeria's showing as his young team continues to evolve.

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