Nigeria began the march to Russia 2018 World Cup on a bright note on Sunday afternoon in Ndola, grabbing maximum points against the Chipolopolo of Zambia. DURO IKHAZUAGBE who witnessed the encounter reports…
Super Eagles captain, John Mikel Obi, was a very happy man on Sunday night aboard the Arik Airline flight from Ndola in Zambia to Abuja. The reason for Mikel’s expansive laughter and hand pumping was obvious to all who know him. To some, the Chelsea star is more of a recluse, who hardly mixes with teammates or even fans. But that night was different. As captain of the Super Eagles, Mikel was like the commander of a battalion who has just led his army to conquer a very crucial territory. Beating the Chipolopolo in a World Cup qualifier right in front of their President, Edgar Chagwa Lungu, at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola was no mean feat.
Grinning from ear to ear and shaking hands of some of the football stakeholders partying aboard the aircraft, Mikel opened up to THISDAY: “This victory is good. It has given us the edge in our Group B. Winning away in a tight group like this is not easy. Now, we have a very good chance to qualify for the World Cup if we keep our heads and play at our best level.”
Sipping from the drink in the paper cup in his left hand intermittently, Mikel attributed the good run that afternoon to the commitment of the players and the coaching crew. “I have the belief that we can reach new heights with this team. The boys are so committed that it makes you happy. The coaching crew is made up of very matured and brilliant people who respect the players,” observed the midfielder who is now the second longest serving player at Chelsea FC having spent 10 years at Stamford Bridge.
In his analysis of the game with the Chipolopolo, Mikel admitted that the combination of the experience of the mostly Europe-based players helped to give Eagles the edge over Zambia. “They (Zambians) got confused by the short passes between our forwards and the midfielders. They perhaps were expecting long balls but we opted not to do that but take the game to them in the way that got us the two goals in the first half,” stressed Mikel who led Nigeria’s Olympic team to bronze medal finish at the last Games in Rio, Brazil.
With Eagles in firm control of the Group B pairing on three points with both Algeria and Cameroun having just a point each following their one-all draw same Sunday night in Algiers, the Blues midfielder insists that Nigeria cannot afford to allow any slip now. “Each and every one of us is determined to go to the World Cup. Now that we are top of the table, we have to remain there,” said Mikel as he took another sip from the content of his paper cup.
What perhaps is giving the Eagles supremo the confidence to remain on top of the group is the fact that Nigeria’s next two games of the qualifiers are at home in Uyo to Algeria and Cameroun in November and early next year. “We should be able to consolidate with this advantage. By the time we will be going away to Cameroun and Algeria, we should have maximised the advantage to stay at the top of the group.”
At 29 years, Mikel believes he has the capacity to continue playing at top level till his 35th birthday. “I am 29 years now and my desire is to continue playing till I am 35 years old. The boys need my experience to guide them. I want to lead the team to the World Cup in Russia and make impact.”
Although Mikel had earlier admitted at the post-match conference that the group is a tough one having three teams at the last World Cup in Brazil and a 2012 AFCON winner paired together, he however believes with the Franco-German coach, Gernot Rohr, in charge and forging a new spirit in the team, Nigeria is in safe hands.
Midway into the four hours and 20 minutes flight from Ndola to Abuja however took a new tempo with the blaring of Nigeria’s hip-hop star, Phyno’s tune, ‘Connect’ from a Bluetooth speaker, turning the Airbus 737-800 series into one large party hall. Interestingly, it was a double celebration for one of Mikel’s players, Brown Ideye, whose birthday fell on that match-day one of the Russia 2018 qualifiers.
Nigeria’s Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung; former NFF President, Aminu Maigari; NFF President, Amaju Pinnick; his other board members on board the flight like 1st Vice-President Seyi Akinwunmi; 2nd Vice-President, Shehu Dikko; Chairman of the Technical Committee, Chris Green; board member and Chairman of Enyimba FC, Felix Anyasi-Agwu; former COJA chieftain, Mainasara Illo; and several chairmen of state FAs and clubs joined in popping champagne to celebrate Ideye’s birthday.
Dalung, who was equally as happy as every Nigerian on that flight, showed some dancing skills to the delight of all. The Plateau State lawyer-politician hinted he last danced 22 years ago but happy doing so again to celebrate Nigeria’s victory over Zambia.
But the anticlimax of the night was the news on arrival at 11-20pm at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport that the Indomitable Lions played one-all with Algeria to deny the Desert Foxes from sharing the glory of another three-point winners in the group.
Nigeria won a competitive away game for the first time in 23 months as Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho scored before Collins Mbesuma pulled one back in the Zambian Copper-belt capital. Manchester City of England prodigy Iheanacho has now scored in each of his last four matches for Nigeria: against Mali in France; Luxembourg in Luxembourg City; Tanzania in Uyo and; Zambia in Ndola.
The Zambians had hoped to get Nigeria’s Europe-based contingent rendered weak and dehydrated with an early afternoon start (2.30pm), but the Eagles approached the match in a matured manner, not engaging in too much running in the first half-hour, and then taking their chances without blinking.
The quintet of goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, Stopilla Sunzu, Nathan Sinkala, Rainford Kalaba and Collins Mbesuma were familiar faces in the Zambian starting line-up. But Fwayo Tembo, Chisamba Lungu and Winston Kalengo are also known to be tough customers.
They tried to run hard and wear the Eagles down in the 35-degree heat, but after surviving the first half-hour, the Nigerian attack stepped up a gear and scored two brilliant goals in 10 minutes. Eagles’ goalie Carl Ikeme and Williams Troost Ekong however stood out of the Nigerian pack with their five-star performances in Ndola.