*Defender Ajayi’s header saves Super Eagles’ blushes against Lesotho’s Crocodiles
Nigeria began their campaign for qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup on a poor note on Thursday in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State with a 1-1 draw with Lesotho.
In the Group C Match Day 1 fixture played before a relatively-sparse crowd at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Nigeria missed winning the game out of their own inadequacies.
The Super Eagles were expected to win the match massively, given their opponents’ low ranking by FIFA.
They even had to struggle to pick a point from the match in the long run, after Motlomelo Mkwanazi gave the number 153-ranked Lesotho a shock lead.
He scored in the 56th minute from a corner-kick, while centre-back Semi Ajayi powerfully headed in Kelechi Iheanacho’s corner-kick to level the game 11 minutes later.
Nigeria’s attacking line of stand-in captain Iheanacho, Ademola Lookman, Taiwo Awoniyi and Victor Boniface failed to find the chance to test goalkeeper Sekhoane Moerane.
The goalkeeper, who was also his team captain, marshaled his defence line well to foil the Eagles’ offensive attempts.
But it was the hosts who could have even fallen behind after 16 minutes, when Tsepang Seeali fired point-blank at Francis Uzoho following a poor ball by Alex Iwobi.
The Super Eagles did threaten the Crocodiles’ rear, with defender Jamilu Collins’ close shot parried and Boniface heading over.
Also, Iheanacho had a dipping shot from a 20-yard free-kick punched away by the magnificent Moerane.
But Awoniyi missed Nigeria’s best chance of the first half when he pushed wide a pass by Boniface in the 36th minute.
Lookman also watched as his left-footed shot from the left was parried away.
In the second half, the hosts began on a good note only for Iwobi’s shot to be parried away in the 52nd minute.
But about four minutes later, the Crocodiles shot ahead, after Uzoho failed to deal with the ball from a corner-kick and Mkwanazi struck with a header.
The Eagles fought back to draw a save from Moerane to Collins’ effort, while Iheanacho watched his shot come back off the upright.
The Leicester City FC player soon swung in a corner-kick for Ajayi to nod past the goalkeeper for Nigeria’s equaliser.
There were several opportunities thereafter to score the winner from promising free-kick positions, but they all looked to be from half-hearted efforts through lack of cohesion.
In spite of the earlier introduction of Moses Simon, and later Terem Moffi, the match ended in a draw for both teams to take a point each from the encounter.
Match Day 2 fixtures will see Nigeria in Butare in Rwanda to face the Warriors of Zimbabwe at the Huye Stadium on Sunday.