China based striker Odion Jude Ighalo scored a hat trick as Nigeria leapfrogged Libya into second place in Group E of qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations after a 4-0 whitewash of the Mediterranean Knights at the Nest of Champions in Uyo on Saturday.
Ighalo gave Nigeria a third minute lead from the penalty spot before netting his second just before the hour mark. The much maligned forward then completed his hat trick in the 69th minute in fortuitous circumstances to banish the ghosts of a horrendous World Cup performance in Russia last summer. Lively winger Samuel Kalu scored Nigeria’s fourth on his home debut as Nigeria humbled their out of sorts visitors.
Ighalo received due rewards for his early pressing on the Libyan back line, forcing an error from the goalkeeper Murad Al Wueeshi who in turn upended the Changchun Yatai forward while trying to amend his error. The El Hillal goalkeeper followed Ighalo’s penalty but could do nothing to prevent it from entering the net.
Lanky striker Anis Mohammed was a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerians in the first half. He almost gave the visitors an equalizer in the ninth minute but his point blank header after a sublime cross from Motasem Masaud was expertly saved by goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.
Nigeria then received a blow when Bursaspor full back Abdullahi Shehu succumbed to what looked like a thigh injury in the first half. Torino star Olaoluwa Aina came on in his stead.
Debutant Jamilu Collins thought he had doubled the Eagles advantage against the run of play after a brilliant overlapping run down the left flank but his chipped effort after Iwobi sliced the ball through to him came back off cross bar.
Ighalo then got his brace in the 58th minute after Alex Iwobi picked him out with a slide rule pass after a patient build-up by the Nigerians. He kept his composure, rounded goalkeeper Wuheeshi before slotting home.
Nigeria then poured forwards again on the hour mark after a quick-feet solution from Samuel Kalu inspired a mini breakaway. The winger found Musa whose cross into the box later fell to the Bordeaux star, but his effort from outside of his boot went straight to Wuheeshi.
Gernot Rohr’s wards never looked back from thence and it was Ighalo who completed his first ever international hat trick in the 69th minute. Iwobi was also involved in the buildup as his pass freed captain Ahmed Musa down the right flank. Although Musa’s cross seemed hurriedly taken, it took a stroke of fortune as defender Mohammed Moner lost his footing, allowing Ighalo to score although at the second attempt after Wuheeshi saved his initial effort.
The striker was then substituted with a quarter of an hour left to a rousing ovation from both fans and his colleagues, with Isaac Success coming on for his competitive debut.
Success almost made an instant impact when he sent another substitute Henry Onyekuru clean through on goal in the 82nd minute but the Galatasaray man made one touch extra as the opportunity went begging.
Kalu then added icing to Nigeria’s glossy cake on the dot of ninety minutes when Onyekuru who looked to have spurned another opportunity to score passed back for the winger at the edge of the box. Kalu took a touch to set the ball for his sweet right to before curling to the far post beyond the reach of Wuheeshi.
In the end, the Eagles – in spite of a first half slumber and a dragging pitch – provided ray of hopes for what the future of the team should look like. Sometimes fluid passing orchestrated by the dynamic Alex Iwobi and engineered by the effervescent Oghenekaro Etebo.
Nigeria now move to second place in Group E behind South Africa who thrashed Seychelles 6-0 earlier on Saturday. The Eagles will now head to Sfax, Tunisia on Tuesday knowing that the onus is now on Gernot Rohr’s men.
Uzoho; Shehu (Ola Aina 21′), William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Jamilu Collins; Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo; Samuel Kalu, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa (Henry Onyekuru 80′); Odion Ighalo (Isaac Success 76′)
Unused subs: Ezenwa, Omeruo, Ogu, Iheanacho
By Fisayo Dairo in Uyo