Leaders Nigeria squandered a four-goal advantage at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium in Benin City to delay their qualification for the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations as Sierra Leone made a spirited fightback to tie the game 4-4 on the evening.
It was an uncharacteristic capitulation on home ground for the Super Eagles, who led 4-0 on the half hour and apparently thought the job was done. They took their feet off the pedal, and unhinged by a rash of substitutions that destroyed rather than buoy the rhythm of their game, they capitulated unbelievably as the Leone Stars scored three unreplied goals in a 14-minute spell in a nightmare second half.
The Eagles had, as expected, bossed the first half hour to an almost –embarrassing degree, with a brace from Alex Iwobi and one each from Victor Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze putting daylight between the hosts and their visitors. But the gap was astonishingly erased as, gradually, the Leone Stars started to show radiance slowly but surely, first capitalising on a mistake by Samuel Chukwueze to split the Eagles’ defence and free Kwame Quee to fire past Maduka Okoye in the 41st minute.
Chukwueze rocked the Leone Stars’ upright from an Ahmed Musa free kick in the 47th minute, but after that, it was the visitors all the way. Coach John Keister brought in Rodney Strasser and Alhaji Kamara to take the places of Alie Sesay and John Kamara, and that move proved magical.
Alhaji Kamara rose highest in the Eagles’ defence to nod powerfully past Okoye for the Leone Stars’ second in the 72nd minute. The emphatic manner of that goal and the bold statement of intent was lost on the Eagles, who continued to show a lack of spirit and move the ball backward rather than forward.
Seeing an opening to create a sensation, Keister made more changes, bringing in Mustapha Bundu and Osman Kakay. These changes further revved the Leone Stars’ engine. Eight minutes after netting the second, Alhaji Kamara, after collecting the ball from the fast –paced Bundu who ran down the Nigerian right wing, slammed a fierce grounder past Okoye for Sierra Leone’s third.
Now, the Leone Stars could not be stopped. While the Eagles failed to create openings, the Leone Stars were upbeat and threatened to score with every move, and it was no surprise when, after a defensive mix-up, substitute Bundu scrambled in Sierra Leone’s equalizer with four minutes to go.
Two efforts by Kelechi Iheanacho from dead balls failed to produce the much-sought-after winner, goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara throwing himself full length to thwart the first and the second flying narrowly above the sticks.
The Eagles still lead Group L with seven points, with the Leone Stars still third on two points, ahead of the pool’s other clash between Benin Republic and Lesotho in Cotonou on Saturday. Whatever the result, the Eagles will maintain their place at the summit of the table, but victory for Lesotho would drive the Leone Stars to the bottom despite Friday’s feat in Benin City.
Both Nigeria and Sierra Leone clash again in Freetown’s Siaka Stevens Stadium on Tuesday evening.
Addressing the Eagles after the game, President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Mr Amaju Melvin Pinnick charged the players to put the disappointment behind them and be ready to give their all and redeem their image in Freetown on Tuesday.
Team captain Ahmed Musa, who was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho in the 71st minute while the Eagles still led 4-1, apologised to Nigerians for the poor ending to the encounter: “This has been a real shocker. I want to, on behalf of the entire team, apologise to the generality of Nigerians for this poor result. We will go to Freetown and do the needful.”