By James O'Conners
New boys start quickly
From the first whistle, Nigeria looked vibrant and energetic, with debutant Joe Aribo in central midfield in Gernot Rohr’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
His four goals in 12 games since joining Glasgow Rangers had earned him a deserved call-up, and it took just four minutes for him to display the attributes he can bring to the side.
Samuel Kalu, back in the lineup after his health concerns at the Africa Cup on Nations, made a superb dribble, cut inside from his role as inverted left winger, showed skill in a tight space, then found Alex Iwobi’s run on the outside.
The Everton man played a cut-back towards Samuel Chukwueze, but Aribo managed to divert a left-footed attempt into the net after making a forward run into a scoring position – a real speciality for the new man.
Up front, Victor Osimhen, who got only one run-out at the Afcon, but has four goals in four games for his new club LOSC Lille, was outstanding in the early stages.
Unlike Odion Ighalo, he often worked the channels, gave a constant out-ball into space and brought a real aerial outlet for the side too, moving onto the touchline for goalkicks as Francis Uzoho aimed longer deliveries forward.
One excellent spin away from his marker and a through-ball for Chukwueze saw Andriy Lunin save well with his legs.
Aside from the excellent work he was doing in holding up the ball, showing good feet in tight spaces, and always availing himself, he also defended well.
Although Nigeria were not pressing high, Osimhen would drop off to supplement midfield and worked very hard for the team.
By the 23rd minute, Nigeria should have been 2-0 up as Aribo again arrived into a goalscoring position but his header from Iwobi’s accurate cross was well-saved. Eventually, the second goal arrived in the 33rd minute.
Ola Aina, getting a start in his natural right-back role, dribbled forward from deep, glided past three Ukraine players and spread a perfect left-footed pass out to Kalu on the left flank.
He cut inside, was taken down, and the referee pointed to the spot.
Osimhen converted for what could be his first of many goals for his country based on this display and his club form.
Issues defending wide
Despite Nigeria’s vibrant attacking play in the first half, and Aina’s individual brilliance to create the second, the Torino man’s defending left a lot to be desired. Albeit in a setup where Chukwueze moved narrow and rarely dropped back, Aina struggled.
Another issue for the side – as it was during the tournament in Egypt – was how to control the space between the lines.
As Andriy Yarmolenko came inside to find space, Jamilu Collins often tracked what he considered ‘his man’ into very deep, narrow positions. This forced Kalu to spend much of the first half as an auxiliary full-back.
One can expect Samuel Chukwueze's decision-making will improve. He's pretty blinkered in transition, and has spurned quite a few opportunities to play in Osimhen.#UKRNGA— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) September 10, 2019
One incident aside when a slide-rule pass caught him out and Ukraine nearly scored, he did his job well – his experience as a wing-back when Rohr uses a back three came in handy.
Another attack saw Oghenekaro Etebo taken away from his zone, Oleksandr Zinchenko was found free between the lines, and Uzoho had to smother a chance from Junior Moraes after Aina was slow to recover inside.
Then, Aina completely missed a header and Uzoho had to pull off a superb double save. Nigeria had been warned, and their 2-0 lead at half-time looked far from secure.
Eagles use transitions
At the start of the second half, Nigeria were far less interested in possession and attacked largely with quick transitions.
On several occasions, Etebo and Aribo won the ball in midfield and immediately released Osimhen into the depth or found Chukwueze’s feet to lead counters.
Iwobi fired wide from one chance set up by the Super Eagles’ striker’s industry and movement before their Villarreal winger, Chukwueze nearly set up Osimhen, but his pass was cut out by the goalkeeper.
Later, Iwobi released the striker again, but Kalu skied his shot when picked out.
When Kalu was chopped down inside the box, but no penalty was given, Nigeria had probably missed their chances to kill the game, and were made to pay for that as Andriy Shevchenko’s men were invited to monopolise possession and territory by Rohr’s substitutions.
Rohr retreats and pays the price
As has been a theme under the German coach, Nigeria did not go for the jugular and finish off their opponents, but instead made changes to protect a lead.
Iwobi was taken off and Anderson Esiti introduced for his first cap since 2016. He played as the deepest midfielder, with Aribo to his right and Etebo to his left in a more conservative midfield three.
Anderson Esiti is a shadow of the player he was four years ago. Seems to have doubled down on his weaknesses in the intervening period.#UKRNGA— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) September 10, 2019
Kalu later went off for Moses Simon as the former began to tire in his defensive duties, and Collins certainly needed protection.
Earlier, he had lost Yarmolenko from Zinchenko’s dinked pass, and several Ukraine players contrived to fail to turn the ball home.
In my eyes, the biggest winner tonight was Francis Uzoho. He needed a performance like this, with Maduka Okoye sat on the bench.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) September 10, 2019
The one-handed save in the first-half was almost Schmeichel-esque.#UKRNGA
Two goals conceded in 49 seconds
With Rohr’s changes inviting pressure and Nigeria now relying almost entirely on early direct passes for Osimhen for any respite, the pressure eventually told. Zinchenko levelled with a lovely run and finish, beating Esiti too easily just inside the box.
Straight from the kickoff, Etebo was caught on the ball, Roman Yaremchuk made a lovely run behind William Troost-Ekong and finished at the second attempt. The goal had come from a handball by the scorer and should have been overruled under the new rules put into effect by IFAB.
Nevertheless, Nigeria had brought this on themselves by playing more negatively and then having defensive changes imposed on them by the coach.
There was time for Emmanuel Bonaventure Dennis to make his debut on the wing, and Chidozie Awaziem got the final few minutes after Ekong went off injured.
Ukraine had dominated the second half, also testing Uzoho from two freekicks, and also scored a disallowed goal in the last minute from an offside position.
Despite the disappointing result and second half, there were more positives than negatives from this game.
Nigeria looked faster and more dangerous going forward without Odion Ighalo and John Mikel Obi, and both Osimhen and Aribo came out of the game with real credit.
However, against a side with numerous creative midfielders overloading Nigeria between-the-lines, the problems from the Afcon in dealing with that threat remained.
Rohr’s change to bring on Esiti did little to curb that threat, and he struggled to adjust to the tempo of the game. Wilfred Ndidi was missed, but even with him in the side, that issue has often reared its head in the recent past.
In goal, Uzoho did his claim to be the number one no harm at all with some excellent saves, though his ability with his feet – both short and long – remains a real concern.
Going forward, Nigeria have tactical issues to sort out and need greater ability from the coach to reclaim matches that are slipping away.
However, this game showed just how exciting some of the emerging young players can be as they gain experience at their clubs and on the international stage.
The Super Eagles may finally be moving on from the older generation.