Tournament favourites Nigeria got their 2016 African Nations Championship campaign off to a winning start as they beat Niger 4-1 at the Stade Regional Nyamirambo in Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday thanks to a second-half hat-trick from Chisom Chikatara.
Osas Okoro opened the scoring for Nigeria at the start of the second half before substitute Chikatara doubled their lead. Adebayor Zakari, also a second-half sub, pulled one back for Niger, but Chikatara fired home twice more late on make sure of the result.
For much of the contest, both sides lacked any real cutting edge and sent a number of chances begging, but the game exploded into an end-to-end affair in the later stages.
The Super Eagles got off to a promising start in a fairly exciting early period, as Prince Aggreh won a corner following a mazy run into the box before testing Niger goalkeeper Moussa Alzouma with a shot from the subsequent set piece.
Ifeanyi Matthew almost picked out Bartholomew Ibenegbu with a whipped delivery, but his cross was just behind the 29-year-old and the Menas were able to clear.
Football writer Colin Udoh and the tournament's official Twitter feed ran the rule over the opening of the match:
At the other end, Idrissa Garba sent a free-kick well wide of the post, while Jamiu Alimi had to foul the Imarana Seyni to prevent him from getting on the end of a promising ball forward.
The defender was booked for the challenge and taken off soon after, per Udoh:
Neither side was able to kick on from their early forays forward, though, and despite continuing to press for a goal, they lacked the composure to create any clear-cut chances.
Some neat interplay on the left from Aggreh and Babatunde Adeniji resulted in the latter picking out Okoro on the edge of the area, but the Nigeria man could not direct his shot on target.
Udoh noted Nigeria's struggles up front:
Niger fared little better on the counter and were able to muster a shot on target in the closing stages of the first half, but Youssouf Oumarou could only shoot straight at Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
The pair did not need to wait long for a breakthrough after the restart, though, as Okoro volleyed home Adeniji's cross from the left just 30 seconds after the Super Eagles kicked off.
They almost doubled their lead minutes later, but Stephen Eze was unable to guide Ibenegbu's teasing free-kick into the net.
Niger responded to the setback with renewed determination and Adebayor fired wide as the Menas built some pressure, but as Sports Radio BrilaFM and Chan 2016 demonstrated, the Super Eagles defended resolutely:
#CHAN2016 54' Niger CK, great safe by Ezenwa. Nigeria 1-0 Niger— Sports Radio BrilaFM (@889BrilaFM) January 18, 2016
60' Nigeria 1-0 Niger. The Menas are looking for an equaliser but the Super Eagles are alert enough to fend off the challenge. #CHAN2016— Orange CHAN 2016 (@CHANRwanda) January 18, 2016
Indeed, Nigeria remained solid at the back and Akas Chima Uche made an expert recovery tackle to deny Ibrahim Paraiso after the forward raced clear but dallied with his shot.
In the 75th minute, the Super Eagles made it 2-0 with an excellent goal from Chikatara. Udoh captured the action:
75' GOAL. Nigeria 2-0 Niger. Great ball over the top by Okoro. Chikatara takes it on his chest and away from defender. Lashes home #NGANIG— Colin NOT Collins (@ColinUdoh) January 18, 2016
To their credit, the Menas continued to fight their way back into the contest and were rewarded five minutes later when Adebayor lashed in a brilliant effort from long range.
Nigeria were swift to quell hopes of a comeback, though, and immediately restored their two-goal lead thanks to another from Chikatara, who tapped in a low cross from close range.
The 21-year-old looked as though he'd squandered the chance to score a memorable hat-trick as he wasted several opportunities late in the game:
Chikatara going for a hattrick. Blows it high #NGANIG— Colin NOT Collins (@ColinUdoh) January 18, 2016
Chikatara misses another chance. 1v 1.— Colin NOT Collins (@ColinUdoh) January 18, 2016
In injury time, his third and Nigeria's fourth finally came as he sealed the victory in style with a neat finish into the bottom corner.
Following Tunisia's 2-2 draw with Guinea, the win takes Nigeria straight to the top of Group C.
The Super Eagles will look to consolidate their position when they take on the Eagles of Carthage in their next outing, though despite bagging four goals, they could still do with improving their incisiveness in the final third.
According to David Meshioye and Adeboye Amosu of Complete Sport Nigeria, Nigeria boss Sunday Oliseh was delighted with his side's performance but would not be drawn on their chances in the tournament:
"The performance tonight was perfect and I am really impressed with my players. We won’t get carried away with the win. We are already looking forward to the our next game and we will approach each game one at a time."
Per Meshioye and Amosu, his counterpart Francois Zahoui lavished praise on the Super Eagles and admitted they were strong contenders to lift the trophy:
"Nigeria was much more the better side. We came against a better Nigeria side that are good enough to win the competition."
On his own side, he added: "We will keep working hard even though it would be hard to qualify considering the pedigree of teams in the group."