Ighalo proves Afcon worth from bench for Nigeria

Odion Ighalo celebrates with Ahmed Musa after scoring Nigeria's winning goal against Burundi in their opening Africa Cup of Nations match at Alexandria Stadium. Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

First of all, that was an enthralling game of football.

Burundi may be ranked 89 places below Nigeria, but they looked anything but as they pushed the Super Eagles to the limit, and it took a moment of genius from Ola Aina, plus the assassin class finishing from Odion Ighalo, to put them away late in the second half.

The Swallows previously had given their more illustrious opponents plenty to chew on, when Cedric Amissa and then Gael Bigirmana not only forced saves from Daniel Akpeyi but also cracked the angle of the post.

They were warnings to the Super Eagles that needed to think again if they had harboured thoughts that their lesser opponents would be easy pickings, and think again coach Gernot Rohr did -- throwing on two of his big guns to come in and settle the matter.

Here's what we unpacked from the Super Eagles' opening game of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations

Forced but bold selections from Rohr

Gernot Rohr is largely a creature of habit, at least as far as his team selection goes. The Nigeria coach only rarely makes wholesale chops to his starting team, especially not for the opening game of a tournament.

But there were more than a few gasps of surprise when Nigeria's line-up was released: o Odion Ighalo, no Ahmed Musa, no Jamilu Collins, and no Henry Onyekuru; it was the selection equivalent of an earthquake.

It turns out the German was not kidding when he said at his pre-match conference that he had players who were still recovering from a cold

"We had a friendly against Zimbabwe under strong rain and so some of us caught cold -- even me -- so we had some sickness in the team," he had said reporters. "We have about four of five players who are not fit because of the cold.

In addition, Samuel Kalu was ruled out after collapsing from what was initially thought to be a heart attack but turned out to be dehydration instead.

And so Paul Onuachu started ahead of Ighalo, and Samuel Chukwueze came in ahead of Musa, Onyekuru and Moses Simon. Ola Aina started as Collins had picked up an injury on the eve of the game.

Rohr explained his choices

"Jamilu was injured yesterday so we could not start him. Musa was ill all of last week, and lost four to five kilos. Ighalo was short of match fitness; remember he had not played seven, eight matches before so we thought it is better to keep him as impact player."

Illness and injuries aside, considering both Musa and Ighalo were available to play and eventually did, means it was bold of Rohr to leave them out, especially in such a crucial game.

But when the selection laboured to break down Burundi, Rohr was quick to ring changes, hauling off John Obi Mikel for Musa and pulling Onuachu for Ighalo. This meant that Alex Iwobi shifted from wide forward to attacking midfield, and the complexion of the game changed -- leading to the goal that turned out to be the winner.

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Akpeyi does well but still does not convince

Daniel Akpeyi has a trust issue. Nigerian football followers do not have enough trust in him as the first-choice Super Eagles goalkeeper; his fragile confidence does little to help.

Akpeyi made no less than four fine stops in the first half alone. Tough saves, no less. But he also allowed a backpass to slip under his foot, and he looked nervous whenever he had to deal with others.

He has only just won back the No. 1 shirt from Francis Uzoho, but while his early save from Amissi should have done his confidence a world of good, the missed backless restored the fragility.

Akpeyi will remain first choice, but his margin for error gets slimmer and slimmer with mistakes. He needs to pick himself up and develop a thick enough skin to do his job without letting nerves or critical comments get the better of him. Otherwise, he might be contemplating life on the bench sooner rather than later

Rohr has a Mikel decision to make

Captain John Obi Mikel has returned to the side after more than a year in self-imposed exile, and he looked decent in friendly games against Zimbabwe and Senegal.

But in this high-tempo contest against Burundi, the game flew by him at a speed that seemed to catch him by surprise.

The former Chelsea star posted one of his more forgettable performances in a Super Eagles jersey, and he would have been as relieved as everyone else when Rohr offered him a mercy substitution.

As soon as the captain went off, the game changed.

Burundi, who had been pushing hard and making a contest of the game, were pinned back in their half for the rest of the game. The goal was inevitable, and Ighalo duly supplied it.

Now Rohr has a decision to make.

The Super Eagles looked way better and played quicker without their captain slowing them down. Does Rohr start Mikel deep alongside Wilfred Ndidi? That means sacrificing the hustle of Peter Etebo or the creative passing of Iwobi.

Or does he simply leave him on the bench and allow his team to fly? Whatever selection decision Rohr makes against Guinea might be a pointer to Mikel's continuing role in the team.

Ighalo proves his class again

Few players in the current Super Eagles squad have taken as much flak as Odion Ighalo. If not for missing a goal at the World Cup, for which he even endured death threats, then for playing his club football in China.

There were some on social media who even suggested the forward should not have been in Nigeria's Afcon squad despite his qualifying series-leading seven goals.

Ighalo has only ever answered one way -- on the field -- and he did so once again in Alexandria.

He replaced the largely ineffectual Onuachu, and showed his younger compatriot how to do the business.

His first touch was to pick up a pass in the box, which dribbled away from him. But his second was a pure striker's goal. The forward read an improvised backheel from Ola Aina, slipped in behind the defence, opened up his body and curled home from close range.

There are few better ways to answer critics.

Goalscoring issues continue

Nigeria have now scored only two goals in their past four games, and, the attacking talent in the squad, Rohr must surely be concerned at how many blanks his forwards are firing.

He had Onuachu, Chukwueze and Iwobi up top to start against Burundi. At the end, he had Ighalo, Musa, Iwobi and Chukwueze on the pitch, yet the team still could score only one goal.

Whatever is holding them back, Rohr has to sort it out. He has a frontline that has goals in it, and he must find a way to unlock those goals.

Things are only going to get harder from here, and goals are going to be critical.