CAIRO (AP) — Odion Ighalo scored a late winner four minutes after coming on as a substitute to see a relieved Nigeria squeeze past debutant Burundi 1-0 at the African Cup of Nations on Saturday.
Nigeria had been warned when the second day of the tournament in Egypt opened with its first major surprise: Uganda, playing at the Cup of Nations for the first time in 41 years, beat former champion Congo 2-0.
Nigeria ultimately prevailed over the newcomers when Ighalo pounced to bury his chance in Egypt’s second largest city of Alexandria.
The forward slipped in behind the Burundi defense after a backheeled pass by Ola Aina. He opened his body and stroked a right foot shot across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
Three-time champion Nigeria deserved the win on the second half evidence, but not on the first 45 minutes.
Then, Burundi was the more adventurous team on the biggest day in its soccer history.
Cedric Amissi controlled a long pass superbly but had his shot blocked by Nigeria ‘keeper Daniel Akpeyi. Akpeyi struggled to keep out a powerful long-range free kick by Gael Bigirimana and Frederic Nsabiyumva hit the crossbar with a header.
“It was a very difficult game,” Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel said. “It was tough. We knew that they are a tough team. They can run and run and run.”
Nigeria is rated one of the contenders to win the title alongside Egypt and Senegal.
Nigeria clicked in the second half after Ahmed Musa and later Oghalo came off the bench, lifting a team that had struggled in the buildup with a number of players struck down with illness.
Coach Gernot Rohr said “half the team” had a fever this week and couldn’t train properly. Nigeria also said that 21-year-old winger Samuel Kalu was recovering and had been released from the hospital after he collapsed at training on Friday with dehydration.
This African Cup has been switched from its regular January-February slot to June and July so it doesn’t clash with any European leagues. But that’s landed it in the middle of Egypt’s sweltering summer. Organizers warned teams that temperatures will rise to 34-38 degrees Celsius (93-100 F) and games will allow for two water breaks during play, in the 30th and 75th minutes.
In Cairo, both of Uganda’s goals came through headers from set-pieces. Patrick Kaddu scored from a corner in the 14th minute and Emmanuel Okwi headed in a free kick early in the second half.
At the African Cup for the first time since the late 1970s, Uganda joined host Egypt at the top of Group A with the victory over a Congo team that has been crowned African champion twice and finished third two tournaments ago.
The game was played at a near empty Cairo International Stadium, illustrating the perennial problem of fan attendance when the home team isn’t playing.
The 75,000-seat stadium was packed to capacity on Friday when Egypt opened the African Cup with a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe.
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