Substitute Alex Iwobi scored the game’s only goal as Nigeria beat Zambia 1-0 to seal a 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualification on Saturday.
The Super Eagles laboured for most part of the game before Arsenal star Iwobi scored within eight minutes of coming on, slicing a Shehu Abdullahi cut-back underneath the Zambian defenders and goalkeeper.
Victory for the Nigerians at the Nest of Champions in Uyo took their points tally to an unassailable 13 points with one more game to spare.
Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr maintained the same starting lineup which drew at Cameroon in September against an exuberant Zambian side that came into the game off back-to-back victories over Algeria in September.
The youthful Zambians started brighter of both sides, giving the Nigerian defense line some torrid times with their pace and trickery.
The first real chance of the game came on 13 minutes when Alex Ng’onga beat Nigerian defender Leon Balogun with a burst of pace down the Zambian right flank but his cross evaded Augustine Mulenga inside the box.
Fashion Sakala was however presented with a better opportunity two minutes later when a William Troost-Ekong pass was intercepted but the Spartak Moscow forward fired wide off the inside post.
Nigeria soon got into the act when captain Mikel Obi and Moses Simon exchanged passes down the right but the latter’s incisive cross narrowly evaded striker Odion Ighalo inside the box.
Zambia would feel hard done by in the 23rd minute when the Assistant Referee’s flag went up rather erroneously before Augustine Mulenga scored. The effort was chalked off for offside.
The hosts got a further blow when midfielder Ogenyi Onazi limped off with a suspected groin injury on the half hour mark. His replacement Mikel Agu struggling to cope with the pace of the game and getting booked within five minutes of coming on.
Zambia created more scoring chances as the first half wore on with the impressive Alex Ng’onga chipping over the bar after Nigerian goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa hesitated.
Ezenwa however produced a good save to tip Enock Mwepu’s 36th minute long range effort onto the post and to safety before Nigerian captain Mikel Obi shoot over at the other end.
Nigeria’s best chance of the half came in the last minute of the half when Odion Ighalo found Moses Simon after a brilliant ball work by the Changchun Yatai forward. Simon however volleyed acrobatically over.
Nigeria started a lot much better in the second half after a subdued firsf half performance.
Leon Balogun headed Victor Moses’ cross straight at Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene early on before the experienced stopper superbly tipped away Wilfred Ndidi’s header to a Moses free kick on 56 minutes.
Rohr then called on Iwobi to replace the inconsistent Daddy Moses Simon with the Arsenal lad linking up brilliantly with his captain, Mikel in his opening moments on the pitch.
It was one of such linkage play that resulted in the game’s lone goal on 73 minutes. A sweet move involving Iwobi, Victor Moses, Mikel Obi ended with full back Shehu Abdullahi cutting back for Iwobi who made no mistake to hit a one-time effort beyond the Zambians.
The Nigerians remained confident, inspired by Iwobi but Zambia still asked few more questions of the Nigerian defence which seemed rattled on occasions during the game.
Cameroon’s 2-0 victory over Algeria in Yaounde remains inconsequential as the Super Eagles became the first African nation to reach next year’s World Cup, their third in a row and sixth in all.
Ezenwa; Shehu, Echiejile (Ola Aina 79’), Balogun, Troost-Ekong; Ndidi, Mikel Obi, Onazi (Mikel Agu 30’); Moses, Simon (Alex Iwobi 66’), Ighalo.
BOOKED: Mikel Agu 35, Abdullahi Shehu 63’
GOAL: Alex Iwobi
Mweene; Silwimba, Kapumbu, Tempo, Sunzu, Mtonga; Mulenga (John Chingandu 87’), Mwepu, Lungu (Ernest Mbewe 51’); Ng’onga, Sakala (Justin Shonga 77’)
BOOKED: Kondwani Mtonga 56’ John Chingandu 90’