One of the few things crueller than seeing a victory derailed by a late, late equaliser is seeing it happen twice in five days. The unfortunate Super Eagles of Stephen Keshi have experienced just that in these early stages of the Cup of Nations.
Whilst what looked like a comfortable three points against Burkina Faso were thrown away after a needless Efe Ambrose red card and a late defensive capitulation, so, against Zambia, a winning position and a perceived safe passage to the knockout stages were thrown away in a late collapse.
This time it was Ogenyi Onazi who was the culprit as Nigeria threw away a one-nil victory to allow Zambia a route back into the match, and perhaps into the Cup of Nations.
The young Lazio midfielder was harshly adjudged to have tackled Emmanuel Mayuka in the box. Kennedy Mweene, a keeper who seemingly can’t help making iconic Afcon moments, stepped up, as calm as ever a guardian in this position could be, and fired the ball past Vincent Enyeama—keeping Zambia’s Afcon alive.
After only managing draws in their first Group C matches, two of the competition’s favourites clashed Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit knowing that a win was almost imperative to their sustained participation in this tournament. The tension was palpable in the early stages, with both sides cautious to avoid going behind, a position of weakness that could be decisive. Failure to secure a victory would only increase the immense pressure ahead of their final group game.
The opening 20 minutes were characterised by an absence of quality, and a tendency for long balls from both sets of players.
With the hard, sandy pitch more conducive to building sand castles than slick, silky passing play, this seemed like the wisest option—but the consequence was a lot of aimless punts that led nowhere.
One smart Zambian move carved out a neat chance for Rainford Kalaba—who impressed with gorgeous delivery all afternoon—but the TP Mazembe man blazed the ball over the top of Vinnie Enyeama’s bar.
On 25 minutes, it looked as though Nigeria had found the breakthrough. Full-back Davies Nkausu, under pressure from Ahmed Musa, brought the CSKA Moscow man down with a rash tackle. John Obi Mikel stepped up, and seemingly ignoring the pressure of the 170 million Nigerians begging him on, the midfielder looked to recreate his crucial converted penalty against Liberia in the qualifiers.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and the Chelsea player’s spot kick was tame and scruffy, thudding harmlessly off the post.
Working on social media at the time, the mood turned from optimism to despair, as Nigerian fans (as is their wont) envisaged the worst from the remaining half of action.
Things didn’t improve after the penalty miss, with Emmanuel Emenike growing increasingly frustrated with his team’s propensity to hurl the ball over the top of the defence rather than attempt to implement any type of smooth, passing action.
After halftime, Nigeria improved, and nearly took the lead. Ahmed Musa broke away down the right and sent a cross-cum-shot across the goal which Emmanuel Emenike failed to touch into the net.
Ten minutes into the second half, the Russia-based frontman finally made his mark—a fine finish pushing the Super Eagles ahead. After nicking the ball from Chisamba Lungu in midfield, John Obi Mikel made amends for his penalty panic, and played Emenike in through the middle. The striker made no mistake, and fired Naija ahead past Mweene.
Zambia sought far and wide for the inspiration that would see them claim some points, with Kalaba and Mbesuma missing chances to reduce arrears.
The breakthrough eventually came from an unlikely source.
The referee, seeing something that few others did, gave a penalty for the Chipolopolo after minimum contact on Emmanuel Mayuka by Onazi. Goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene stepped up, and dispatched a spotkick that even Messi would have been proud to claim.
Keen to avoid a second successive collapse, Nigeria knocked at the door, but visibly ruffled, they failed to find the net again as the game ebbed to a close.
While both sides are still in with a chance of qualification, neither have convinced and either of the two could still crash at the first hurdle. Nigeria will doubtless be dejected after throwing away yet more points, but Zambia have to ask big questions of themselves as well—their play often looked inspired, and in truth, they are fortunate to still be alive in this tournament.
Ed Dove is Bleacher Report's African Expert, contact him on Twitter @Eddydove