Nigeria happy with draw vs. Ghana in first leg of World Cup playoff

Advantage Nigeria.

Or so it appears after Ghana and the Super Eagles played out a tense but entertaining 0-0 draw in the first leg of their 2022 World Cup qualifier in Kumasi.

Nigeria can take a long list of positives from the encounter: A clean sheet; creating more chances than the home team despite weathering a battery of attacks; restricting Ghana to one dangerous shot at goal; an international debut for Ademola Lookman; and, of course, a valuable draw from the lair of a tough opponent to take home.

It was not at all easy, and Nigeria coach Austin Eguavoen acknowledged that in his post-match press conference.

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"Ghana are a very tough team," Eguavoen said. "The biggest positive we take from this is that we did not lose. We got a good result and our team was very organized and disciplined. But it was a good game and we are happy with the result."

As well he should be.

Ghana consider Baba Yara Stadium as something of a lucky charm where they usually win critical matches, and it was immediately evident why driving into the stadium. Traffic leading to the stadium was backed up for nearly three miles, and all 40,528 seats at the venue had bums on them. And then some. Many in the stadium were standing for the duration of the game.

More than 400 media were accredited and the tribune was standing space only, shoulder to shoulder.

The stadium hence felt like a living, breathing monster of people singing and drumming and making such a din to will their team to win that a lesser team than Nigeria would have crumbled in the face of such a cacophonous assault.

"We had to stay strong, and keep our focus on ourselves and what we came here to do," defender William Troost-Ekong said.

And so they did.

Ghana pressed high, with Felix Afena-Gyan proving to be a particularly racy pain in the neck for Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun at the heart of Nigeria's defence. He had at least one opportunity when he outpaced both and bore down on goal, but Balogun recovered to make a last-ditch tackle that denied the youngster.

With Jordan Ayew proving equally troublesome in the wide areas against Ola Aina, the Black Stars dominated possession and threatened again and again, especially from corner kicks and set pieces, but the Nigerian defence held firm. To do so in that cauldron of red and black and noise was a credit to the defenders and team as a whole.

But there was more.

For Nigeria, most of the questions ahead of the game centered on how they would cope in midfield against the force of nature that is Thomas Partey without the matching influence of Wilfred Ndidi, who was absent due to a knee injury.

Eguavoen had many options, but each had limitations. Peter Etebo -- Ndidi's long-time midfield partner -- would have been the immediate replacement, but he is recovering from quadriceps injury and had played barely 15 minutes since returning for Watford. Innocent Bonke had played just one game for Nigeria, and Frank Onyeka was lacking game time at Brentford. All of which left Eguavoen with a headache going into the game.

The coach surprised many when he opted for Bonke, and it looked in the early moments like a decision that would backfire. Especially as Ghana's early tactics appeared to be to get the ball quickly to Partey or play long balls in behind to attack the lack of pace in Nigeria's centre-backs.

But the Lorient man grew into the game, and imposed himself in midfield, helped by the industry of Joe Aribo, who did a fine job of restricting Partey.

"We were very happy with the way he played," Eguavoen said of Bonke. "We trust in our players and we know that anybody we call upon at any time has the ability to do the job."

Bonke was not the only player who earned praise.

Francis Uzoho returned in goal after losing his spot to Maduka Okoye, and looked so assured there are already whispers that he should keep the job on a permanent basis. His highlight was beating away a snap shot that looked bound for goal in the second half.

And then there was the debut for Lookman. The Leicester City forward, on loan from RB Leipzig, went on late in the game and showed plenty of promise albeit he did look a bit overwhelmed by the occasion. Emmanuel Dennis looked dangerous when he went on, and could have earned himself a starting spot for the return leg.

It is not all roses, though, and Eguavoen said there were lessons to take home.

"This is not over," he said. "It is just the first half of this game, and there is still the second leg to play. I was not happy with the way we were letting them win some balls and get into spaces, but we will sort that out in the second leg.

"We don't expect an easy game in Abuja, but we are confident that we can win and qualify.