Striker Odion Ighalo hugged the headlines with a relieving hattrick in Nigeria’s victory over Libya on Saturday but the performance of Arsenal star, Alex Iwobi provided the fulcrum for the victory and more importantly; sent a message of hope and assurance for the future.
Nigeria battered Libya 4-0 at the Nest of Champions in Uyo to put themselves in a better position for a slot into next year’s Africa Cup of Nations with the 22-year old at the centre of every good thing the Eagles did in front of about 20,000 fans in the Southern Nigerian city.
Iwobi has never hidden his desire to feature for the Eagles in a preferred playmaking role which has mostly been occupied by captain John Mikel Obi under the reign of Gernot Rohr which started in 2016. The nephew of Nigeria’s midfield wizard Jay-Jay Okocha has had to make do with playing in a demanding wing role both at club and country level but Saturday’s game eventually offered the opportunity to play in that position which he looked to have grabbed with both hands.
An early goal from the penalty spot by Ighalo gave pointers of a routine victory for the Super Eagles but the Libyans provided real resistance for the remainder of the first half in a period they totally bossed the game. In the midst of that first half retreat however, Iwobi kept the feet of a patient lion when starved in the wilderness – no pun intended for his looks on the day – providing vision and provision for his side.
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One of his six key passes in the game came midway through the first half when he freed debutant Jamilu Collins down the left flank with a return pass which caught the Libyans absolutely off guard. The left back’s effort was only denied by the cross bar. Iwobi’s willing movement to either flanks when Nigeria’s full backs and wingers were on the ball allowed him evade much of the chaotic midfield environment to lend creativity to his side.
Many a time in the game, his energetic movement afforded him the chance to particularly combine with Samuel Kalu as they terrorised the Libyan full back positions. Nigeria got an insurance second goal just before the hour mark and it was Iwobi who picked out Ighalo with a sublime pass before the striker easily rounded the goalkeeper.
As Nigeria’s influence became overwhelming in the game, such became the impact of the man with the dreadlocks as he stood out among the Eagles – not just with his hairstyle but his characteristic sleek passing and movement. Like a cat perceiving the sonorous scent of a fried mackerel, Iwobi had the North Africans in full obeisance and dealt further blows with more key passes.
Nigeria and Ighalo’s third goal came from a mini-breakaway by the Eagles and the decisive pass came from Iwobi who was quick to spot captain Ahmed Musa on his marks, releasing him with a well weighted pass down the right. Musa hurriedly squared for Ighalo inside the box and; although the defender should have cleared, the quick vision and accuracy of Iwobi in the buildup deserved the goal which Ighalo got at the second bite of the broken cherry.
The first half’s seeming lack of coordination remains an issue needing to be sorted in subsequent games but the decisive half of the game, systemised by the lively playmaker has its capability in the provision a success template for Gernot Rohr’s young troops.
While the occasional defensive inadequacies and the midfield’s loss of control can be consoled with a clean sheet against the hitherto group leaders, Iwobi’s eagerness to play ball on the day and his definitive impact is more than just mere positives to build on. Now left for the youngster to push more for perfection and above all, consistency.