Onuachu: The Rejected Stone That Became Eagles’ Messiah
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By Amaechi Agbo
First, he was put on the standby list of the 24-man squad for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers between Benin Republic and Lesotho.
Then, he was drafted into the full squad after Moses Simons French Ligue One club, Nantes refused to release their asset due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Before all this unwarranted drama, Paul Onuachu is the highest goal scorer in European leans with mouth watering 27 goals for his Belgium club, KRC Genk.
Despite aspiration and criticisms trailing his late invitation to the team, the lanky striker in total humility, joined the camp without much ado.
And then, although prior to kick-off of the match in Pot Novo, Benin Republic the Super Eagles have booked their place into 2021 AFCON in Cameroon thanks to a barren draw between Sierra Leone and Lesotho earlier on Saturday, Nigeria had two missions to actualise in Benin – to destroy the Squirrels home unbeaten run spanning eight-year period and to confirm their leadership of Group L in the qualifying race.
Given these scenarios, coach of the side, Gernot Rohr still benched the Genk man.
But he scored in the 93rd minute as Nigeria beat Benin 1-0 at the Stade Charles de Gaulle in Porto Novo on Saturday to delay the Squirrels’ qualification to next year’s Total Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Nigeria had already earned qualification even before they stepped on the pitch in Porto Novo after Sierra Leone and Lesotho had played to a barren draw.
Benin looked set to follow the Super Eagles to Cameroon as they had held on to a draw, but the last-minute goal means they are now faced with an important last match away to Sierra Leone, who also have qualification hopes.
Sierra Leone are on four points and could qualify with a win at home against Benin, who need just a point to go through. Nigeria play Lesotho in the last group match, the latter’s hopes having been ended after their draw with Sierra Leone.
In Porto Novo, it was a game of two halves with Nigeria dominating the opening half while Benin’s Squirrels had more chances in the second period, though none of the efforts could bear a goal.
The Super Eagles, perhaps charged with the pre-match news that they were already qualified for Cameroon even before they took to the pitch against Benin, started the match strongly and ended the half with the most scoring chances.
As early as the fifth minute, the Nigerians were already causing their hosts jitters when Victor Osimhen struck a shot wide across the face of goal when he was sent through by Henry Onyekuru.
Two minutes later, Benin keeper Saturnin Allagbe made a brilliant one handed save to tip over a snap shot from Kelechi Iheanacho.
Benin had their first effort at goal in the 21st minute, but it was a faint one, and the closest they cam with threatening the Nigerian backline. Steve Mounie turned quickly from 30 yards out before unleashing a shot from his right boot, but the effort trickled wide.
The Nigerians continued dominating and Osimhen once again had a chance in the 24th minute. However, the lanky Napoli striker took a hurried shot that was easily saved when a good interchange of passes released him into the box.
Gernot Rhor’s men were playing some good football and some neat team play in the 33rd minute almost opened up the opening goal when Ola Aina switched flanks to float the ball to Onyekuru on the left, the winger teeing up Iheanacho but his shot deflected for a corner.
A minute to the break, Benin keeper Allagbe made a super block at point blank to deny Onyekuru who snapped in a quick header from a decent Zaidu Sanusi cross from the left.
In the second half, Benin started stronger and had a chance presented to them in the 51st minute. Confusion between William Troost-Ekong and keeper Maduka Okoye saw Mounie sneak in between the two, but his attempted lob over the keeper was wide.
Three minutes on the turn Nigeria also sneaked in two back to back chances with Osimhen seeing both go begging. The striker’s first effort from the edge of the area went over while in the 56th minute, he had a low shot from the right hit the upright.
On the other end, Okoyo made a good save in the 63rd minute when he went down to his left to pluck out a header from Mounie who had risen to connect to a Youssouf Amouda cross.The final 25 minutes of the game were a see saw affair between the two sides.
It was Nigeria who would come alive in the final minutes and their late pressure bore fruit when Onuachu headed home after keeper Allagbe had saved Osimhen’s effort with his feet.