September 13, 2000

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Nigeria hang on to their pride

In terms of star-billing, the Nigeria-Honduras game, despite the presence of the defending gold medallists, took second billing to the Italy-Australia fixture simultaneously on at the MCG.

But for all that, there was a sizeable crowd at Adelaide to watch the Golden Eagles in a game they were odds on to win. The weather was good, 24 degrees and lots of sun. A stiffish breeze across the ground was a factor for the air-ball, but not sufficiently so to upset the players' rhythm.

Nigeria attacked from kickoff, with Garba Lawa taking a shot at goal inside the first minute and Okunowo following up an instant later with another snap shot, but Honduran keeper Valladares showed early on that he is cool under the bar.

Honduran skipper Guerrero then gave the Eagles something to think about with a solo down the left wing, slipping the defence and crossing square over the top. The resulting header went awry, though. With the move, Honduras indicated that given an inch of open space, they have the skill to take a yard and run with it.

Honduras in fact gave the Nigerians food for thought with two lovely moves in swift succession, around the 10-minute mark. Nigerian goalie Etafia showed great anticipation in racing out of his charge and grabbing the ball just before the rushing David Suazo could get a toe in and, seconds later, Etafia was in action again as a neat Honduran backpass opened up the Nigerian defence and threatened the goal.

Defying the pundits, it was Honduras firmly in control in the first 30 minutes, with Leon in particular proving deadly dangerous with steaming runs down either flank. A superb cross found David Suazo, in the 22nd minute, but the shot went wide. Less than a minute later, Leon, this time racing down the right, fired on the run but found the keeper.

With the game nicely warmed up and Honduras displaying the kind of form that helped them beat the US of A, Nigeria appeared a bit startled. Their skills, though, remained in tact as Aghahowa skipped through the middle, slid away from Montoya and slammed a fierce, shot, failing however to curve it sufficiently out of reach of the Honduran goalie.

Suazo, during the first session, was easily the best player on either side, mounting dangerous attacks in tandem with fellow Honduran forward Martinez. A deadly dance saw him jig around one defender, dummy another, then a third, the ball glued to the toe of his boot in a remarkable ballet that culiminated in a power-packed drive from the top of the box. Etafia, whose competence had till then saved Nigeria's blushes, could only dive, then watch as the ball flew over his head and into the net.

Nigeria was paying a price for a highly individualistic style of play, that saw individual players hanging on to the ball for a display of skill, rather than passing to better placed colleagues. The goal, though, came as a wakeup call, and Nigeria began combining better, mounting attacks from either flank but coming to grief against a steady, if unspectacular, Honduran defence line.

Seconds before half time, it was Suazo again, steaming down on the goal from midfield, racing the desperately scrambling Nigerian defenders to the ball, only to be brought down by Okunowo. Both players went down, the ball drifted harmlessly away and Etafia breathed a sigh of relief, to bring half-time to a close.

The second half opened with some rapidfire skirmishing, with the two teams testing each other out. It was the Nigerians, though, who seemed in increasing command, their electric ball skills now coming into play in both offense and defence.

When the equaliser came, it came with a touch of magic. Pius Ikedia got the loose ball on the right wing and in a dazzling run, shuffled the ball from right foot to left as he slalomed past three defenders before cutting back, on the goal-line, to sweep a diagonal cross over the goalmouth. Bright Igbinadolor needed merely to finish, and he did that in style. The equaliser is in Igbinadolor's name, but it was Ikedia who took out three defenders, then beat the desperately diving Honduran goalie with a snaky cross that served up the chance on a platter for his team-mate.

Honduras struck back immediately, with a floater to the top of the box that seemed destined to end in goal before a Nigerian defender dived headlong to head out of play, at the expense of a throw-in.

Turcois took the throw, to Leon, got it back, gave it back -- and suddenly, out of the blue, Leon launched a magnificient long-ranger, from way to the right and outside the area, aimed at goal. The swirling, whistling kick took Etafia by surprise. The goalkeeper dived, but could only watch it curve past and overhead, into the left top corner of the net. As a piece of opportunism, the Leon strike came out of the top draw -- and Honduras was ahead again.

In the 76th minute, David Suazo figured he had been quiet for long enough, and came racing down the middle under a high ball. The Nigerian goalkeeper, who has a propensity to charge the ball, came darting out of his ground, Suazo weaves past, and receives a clip on the back of the head for his pains. Penalty, no question, and Suazo calmly slots it home, to make it 3-1.

That was the spur Nigeria needed. Upping their game a couple of gears, they ran the legs off the Hondurans, peppering the opposing goal with a relentless barrage of strikes. The Nigerian penchant for individual play, which had worked against them in the first half, now worked for the defending champions as the various players turned on a display of skill that left the opposition bewildered, and unsure of who to mark or where the danger was coming from next.

In the 78th minute, Pius Ikedia produced a lovely run down the wing, before passing to Garba Lawal. Lawal's stabbing strike at goal, however, was covered by Valladares.

Immediately thereafter, Ayegbeni came dashing down the wing, easily having the legs on his marker in the Honduran defence. After leaving his marker behind, the Nigerian then doubled back in his tracks, before clipping a lovely cross to the top of the box, for Victor Agali to go airborne and connect with a power-packed strike that bulged the back of the net. Nigeria 2-3.

With the crowd going wild, the Nigerians incredibly upped their game even further, swamping the Honduran box. The clock showed full time, the PA system announced five minutes of injury time, the Nigerians came on in waves and Yakubu Ayegbeni, who had created the previous goal out of scratch, got the ball again. With four defenders surrounding him, he shaped to pass, then pushed forward past one defender, danced around another, opened up an inch of space for himself on top of the box and, out of the blue, crashed a swirling, rising kick through the Honduran throng and into the far right corner of the net, to restore parity.

It was beginning to look as though Nigeria might in fact pull off a wildly improbable win, but the combined exertions of the Honduran team, tightly packed in defence, and the referee's final whistle ended the match with both teams gridlocked on three goals apiece.

The Hondurans deserve kudos for a controlled display. And the Nigerians deserve censure, and praise, in equal measure. Censure for their seeming indolence for most of the match, as the defending champions gave the impression that they were taking their win for granted; and high praise for the supreme skills displayed during the last 10 minutes of the match, when they fought back from 2 goals down to go out with honours even.

Anyway you look at it, the game got the men's half of the Olympic soccer event off to a flier. And Nigeria, despite the evidence of today, look very much a side to beat.

In other matches in the men's league, Cameroon beat Kuwait 3-2 while the United States and the Czech Republic drew -2-2.

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