The Nigerian Under-23 team, the Dream Team VI Friday morning defeated Japan in the opening match of the Rio 2016 Olympics
Nigeria went ahead in the seventh minute, after good work by Imoh Ezekiel on the right flank saw him carve out space to fire a left-footed shot that goalkeeper Masatoshi Kushibiki could only parry onto the path of an onrushing Sadiq Umar, who grabbed the gift colly before racing towards the byline to begin the Dream Team’s celebrations.
But the celebrations had barely died down when Japan struck back, forward Shinzo Koroki sending goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel the wrong way in the ninth minute after Stanley Amuzie was adjudged to have fouled an opponent.
Nigeria paid the Japanese back in their own coin by scoring after just two minutes, Oghenekaro Etebo deftly controlling a long ball before powering home from close range.
Having conjured a quick equalizer once, the Japanese were quick to pump players forward in search of another goal; it worked. A lapse in concentration by the Dream Team plus a perfectly-executed through ball sent Takumi Minamino towards goal, and he made no mistake, slotting the ball through Daniel’s legs to cap an unexpected four goals within six minutes.
There was no quick goal to follow, as both teams settled into the game, though it was Nigeria who had firmer grip of the match, confidently distributing play and forcing their East Asian opponents to sit deep with an eye on counter attacks.
Nigeria’s dominance paid off three minutes before half time, but it also came with a bit of fortune. Umar received the ball in the penalty zone and laid off a pass for Etebo, whose scoffed effort bounced back off an opponent for a second and clearer chance at goal. There was only one possible outcome, and the ball was soon nestling in the back of the net.
On resumption of second half, the Nigerians continued from where they stopped, Umar again doing all the dirty work. Two Japanese defenders seemed to have possession of the ball, but Umar courageously charged through them, stole the ball and raced towards goal. He was about to lay the ball from a teammate when he was hurled down, prompting the referee to point to the penalty spot. Etebo stepped up to send Kushibiki the opposite direction.
Etebo was the hero again but he had captain John Obi Mikel and striker Umar to thank, the former sending in a sweet cross and the latter giving it a chase to force Kushibiki into a hurried clearance that ended up on Etebo’s feet. But the CD Feirense of Portgual midfielder still had a lot to do, as the ball was a distance from goal. Etebo hit it at once to notch his fourth goal of the game and his 11th in 17 appearances for the team. Five goals to two on 66 minutes.
The game swung to Japan from then on, as Nigeria tired out as the commentators had predicted from the start of the match as a consequence of nearly a week of being stranded in Atlanta and arriving Brazil only a few hours to the match. Japan deservedly narrowed the deficit to two on 70 minutes, Takuma Asano poking home following good work from a team mate that left Nigeria’s entire defence stranded.
Despite a late rally from the Japanese, which produced a goal by substitute Musashi Suzuki in the final minute of added time, Nigeria held on to secure a narrow victory.