Alex Iwobi, who had missed the crucial two games against Cameroon, returned against Zambia to send Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. His solitary goal was all that was needed to shut up the Zambians. Iwobi had lost his starting spot and no one could argue that he had not played his best until today against the Zambians when his energy, runs, and his intelligent passing proved decisive.
While Iwobi definitely was the man of the match, Leon Balogun again, was at the heart of Nigeria's defense. He is quickly emerging into the mold of great Nigerian center backs. Not only did he dominate at the heart of the defense over the Zambian striker but he frequently cleaned up mistakes by others. It was also a welcome sight to watch Ola Aina take his debut by the scruff and in one move down the left a cross provided by him spoke volumes. The days are now numbered for Elderson Echiejile on the left who started strong but was poor after half time.
This was not Nigeria's best performance by any measure but the fact that Nigeria was able to rally to win the game is the most important thing. For much of the game it seemed Nigeria, in spite of playing cautiously, looked vulnerable to high balls behind the center of the defense in the opening half. Twice Zambia got through. On the first they had the ball in the net but it was ruled offside. On the second, the Zambian attacker knocked Balogun down only to shoot hurriedly over the bar. Nigeria was indeed lucky but in the second half, the Nigerian midfield, particularly Ndidi, began to close down the long balls and Zambia had to shift to the wide attacking positions where Echiejile was repeatedly found wanting. Here are how the players rated (Firsthalf/Second half):
Ike Ezenwa (16) -- 6.0/6.0 -- He had only few moments to worry about when he had to deal with long range shots. Beyond that he was solid and stood his ground. He did nothing spectacular all day.
Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0/6.5 -- Shehu was average in the opening have but he went up by several notches after halftime both defensively and assisting in attack. He provided the assist for Iwobi's goal and what should have been his second assist was frittered away by Victor Moses.
Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.2/5.8 -- Elderson had one of his strong games in the opening half as he shut down the Zambians defensively. In the second half, it was a different story. He was run out of the stadium by the speedy Zambians and he began to accumulate errors before he was substituted on account of injury.
William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 5.9/6.1 -- William had an average day defensively. He won, in large part, his defensive battles but had a difficult opening half dealing with balls behind the defense and had one atrocious pass that put Nigeria in deep danger after only 14 minutes.
Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.5/6.8 -- Leon was Nigeria's defensive hero just as he was in the two games against Cameroon. He was always available cleaning up errors by others and in this game he showed increasing confidence taking the ball from defense into attack.
Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 6.1/0.0 -- Played just about half an hour before going off injured. However, by then, he was doing his work recovering the ball on defense.
Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.0/6.3 -- Wilfred covers more grass than any other player. In this game, he won more than he share of the ball in the middle and came close to scoring with a magnificent header from Victor Moses' cross. However, Wilfred turned the ball over multiple times and his timing when he had the ball was not exactly what it is usually.
Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 6.2/6.5 -- Mikel Obi finished the game something he rarely does in recent days. He was the calming influence in the middle and his ball control was impeccable as usual. He bore the brunt of several fouls by Zambia.
Moses Simon (15) -- 6.0/6.0 -- Simon had a few remarkable runs down the right after he switched with Victor Moses beyond the first quarter of an hour. Simon had a relatively good game and tracked back repeatedly. That he was substituted was more about introducing a change of pace into the game than it was a reflection on his play.
Victor Moses (11) --6.5/6.5 -- Victor Moses always comes to play and he did so for most of this game except for the early second half when he seemed out of it. His pace, as usual was deadly but his finishing took a vacation in this game.
Odion Ighalo (9) -- 6.0/6.0 -- Odion had a good game but he was not as active as he usually is but still won a fair share of the ball against the strong centre backs of Zambia.
Mikel Agu (21) -- 5.8/6.0 -- Mikel had his first extended play in competitive games for Nigeria after he replaced Onazi in the opening half. It could have been nerves but his tackles were poorly timed and he deservedly received a caution and his passes were late leading to Victor Moses visibly complaining in one case. However, he did improve in the second half.
Alex Iwobi (18) -- 0/6.8 -- Alex came into the game and promptly changed it with his play. Not only did he finish up with a good goal but he was involved in the exquisite passing that preceded it. He played confidently, unlike his recent games for Nigeria.
Ola Aina (2) -- 0/ 6.0 -- Ola barely played enough to be rated but he was involved in one remarkable play on the left that portended a future place on the starting team. It was indeed a good debut for him. More expected in the future.