By John Egbokhan
Three-time African champions, Nigeria were yesterday held to a frustrating barren draw by Swaziland in a second round 2018 FIFA World Cup first leg game at the Somhlolo National Stadium in Lobamba.
It was supposed to be a David versus Goliath affair, with Eagles, tipped to come out tops of the tussle. Parading 11 foreign-based players, the Coach Sunday Oliseh-tinkered side found the Swaziland defence difficult to break.
For 95 minutes, Swaziland, obviously inspired by the fact that they were playing against one of Africa’s top teams in the qualification series, held firm to nick a famous draw.
It was the first time that both teams were playing at the senior level and with the parade of Euro-based in the Eagles team, the fans came out in their thousands to see the likes of John Mikel Obi, Carl Ikeme, captain Ahmed Musa, Moses Simon, Ogenyi Onazi, Kelechi Iheanacho and returnee striker Obafemi Martins strut their stuff.
The atmosphere in the 20, 000 capacity stadium was electrifying as the Nigerian attack, spearheaded by in-form Watford striker, Odion Ighalo prodded for the opening goal.
But the hosts defenders stood firm, cutting out Ighalo and Simon from making the telling shots that will rock the back of the net although they were lucky when Eagles hit the post. Swaziland also created their own chances.,
Captain Tony Tsabedze and Ndzinisa were the major threats to Ikeme, with Ndzinisa making two attempts at goal in the first half which were off the mark to the relief of the travelling Nigerians fans.
Mthunzi Mkhontfohad hit a speculative shot that went wide off the mark on seven minutes. Swaziland enjoyed some good passing spell seven minutes later, with Sabelo Ndzinisa and Muzi Dlamini combining well to trouble the Eagles defence line but Godfrey Oboanona and Efe Ambrose were equal to the demands.
Sensing that the Eagles were mere mortals after all, Sandile Hlatjwako made a solo run before passing to Tony Tsabedze, who sent a shot into the box that was saved by 29 year-old goalkeeper Carl Ikeme..
With the Eagles struggling to get into their rhythm, the hosts grew in confidence, as Mxolisi Lukhele struck a tame shot that was easily stopped by Ikeme on 22 minutes.
Eagles went on a counter, with Simon forcing a corner from goalkeeper Gwebu.
The highlight of the match came six minutes later as Swaziland’s goalkeeper made a double save to deny Nigeria the opener.
Eagles continued to have plenty of ball possession but found Swaziland not easy to break down. It continued to be a frustrating night for the Nigerians, whose coach, Sunday Oliseh, in the second half, took out Sylvester Igboun in the midfield for Rabiu Ibrahim. But Ibrahim did not add anything to the Eagles game as the hosts took control of the midfield.
On 55 minutes, Eagles almost took the lead but the woodwork stopped the Simon’s free kick as Swaziland’s breathed a sigh of relief.
Worried with the pace of the game, Oliseh, in the 65th minute, introduced Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho for the misfiring Ibrahim, himself a substitute.
He also replaced Mikel with Obafemi Martins but these additions did little to alter the direction and scoreline of the game as Swaziland earned a famous draw against their illustrious foes.
The second leg holds on Tuesday in Port Harcourt, with the winners progressing to the 20-team mini league to determine Africa’s five qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.