It was nerve-wrenching towards the end but the Super Eagles staged a comeback on Thursday to defeat the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone 2-1 with goals from Alex Iwobi and Victor Osimhen at an empty MKO Abiola Stadium in Abuja.
The pitch was in poor condition and did not help the Eagles in their play but at the third time of asking, new coach Jose Peseiro won in what was his first competitive match.
The 62-year-old tactician surprised many observers by starting with two strikers- Osimhen and Umar Sadiq while reverting to a flat back four that had Ola Aina, Calvin Bassey, Semi Ajayi, and Captain William Troost-Ekong.
The match started with a lot of intensity as the two teams traded blows having drawn their last two encounters. The Eagles had a shout for a handball in the second minute but the Ivorian referee waved play on.
In the fourth minute Sierra Leone broke on a counter and Mohamed Turay’s shot floored Aina, Turay pounced on the rebound to force a save from Uzoho for the first corner to SL is quickly followed by a second and the Eagles are under early pressure.
The Eagles responded with an Osimhen header that was slightly off-target, off a deep cross from Bassey.
In 12 minutes, the Leone Stars took the lead. Musa Noah Kamara dazzled down their left flank and left Ekong in his wake before producing a cross that was finished by a diving header from Jonathan Morsay.
The Eagles responded three minutes later after a good inter-play between Alex Iwobi and Moses Simon. Iwobi controlled the return pass and passed into the net. Samuel Chukwueze has a half-chance in the 18th minute but his shot was blocked before Simon headed straight at the goalkeeper who then needed treatment.
The pitch caused the Eagles lots of problems with the uneven and unpredictable bounce of the ball. Ajayi almost gifted Sierra Leone a goal in the 35th minute when he mis-controlled a ball in the box.
The Eagles took the lead in the 41st minute after another assist from Simon, this time a header into Osimhen’s path and the Napoli man volleyed home. The Eagles almost increased their lead in stoppage time after a defensive blunder gave Simon a shooting chance but Mohamed Kamara was quickly out to smother the effort.
The first half saw the Eagles susceptible to fast counters from the Leone Stars and at the start of the second half, Peseiro made a change. Oghenekaro Etebo was sent on for Sadiq and the Eagles got more control of the midfield.
Etebo’s first duty was to halt the driving run of Alhassan Koroma three minutes into the second stanza.
On 54 minutes, a defensive mixup gave Osimhen a shooting chance but he laid on for the better-placed Chukwueze but he failed to hit the target.
The Sierra Leonanas almost scored an improbable equaliser on the hour after substitute Amadou Bakayoko got between Ekong and Francis Uzoho but he prodded his effort just wide of the right post.
The Leone Stars were saved a third goal in the 63rd minute as a corner kick was cleared off the line. Ekong pulled up in the 78th minute after making a tackle and he had to be taken off. A new centre-back will be needed when the Eagles confront Sao Tome on Monday.
Moffi came on for a limping Osimhen a minute into added time as the Eagles deployed all hands to the defensive pump to preserve the victory. Etebo cleared over the bar for a corner kick as Sierra Leone pressed for an equaliser.
And they almost got it in the 92nd minute when Bakayoko had a chance in the box but he failed to control and the chance was gone.
Eagles kicked off their 2023 AFCON qualifiers with a win in what was a well-contested match against their West African opponents.
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