William Troost-Ekong’s second-half penalty gave Nigeria a 1-0 win over Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations on Thursday, turning up the heat on the host country whose hopes of reaching the last 16 remain in the balance.
Captain Troost-Ekong, of Greek club PAOK, converted from the spot 10 minutes into the second half at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium in Abidjan, after a foul on Victor Osimhen was picked up following a VAR check.
The Super Eagles then held on in front of a frenzied crowd to claim their first win in Group A after beginning their AFCON bid with a 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea.
Those sides are locked on four points at the top of the section, with Ivory Coast behind them on three points and Guinea-Bissau already eliminated after losing both games so far.
The fact that the four best third-placed sides in the six groups will all advance to the last 16 leaves margin for error, but Ivory Coast must now beat Equatorial Guinea in their last match on Monday to guarantee progress.
Meanwhile Nigeria must simply avoid defeat against Guinea-Bissau -– beaten 4-2 by Equatorial Guinea earlier – to ensure a top-two finish.
The match was watched by 49,517 fans, a far higher crowd than that for the hosts’ opening game, when the number of empty seats at the 60,000-capacity venue was a source of controversy.
Despite the favourable atmosphere, the Elephants are the first host nation to lose a match in the group phase of an AFCON since 2012, when Equatorial Guinea -– co-hosts that year with Gabon –- went down 1-0 to Zambia.
The last host nation to go out in the first round was Gabon, eliminated with three draws in 2017.
Ivory Coast were still missing star forward Sebastien Haller as he recovers from injury, as coach Jean-Louis Gasset made two changes to his line-up with Serge Aurier coming in at right-back and Christian Kouame on the right wing.
Nigeria were without injured Alhassan Yusuf in midfield and started with a three-man central defence as Fulham’s Calvin Bassey came in.
African footballer of the year Osimhen led the attack and blazed a fine chance over the bar early on, as three-time champions Nigeria failed to muster a shot on target in the first half.
Ivory Coast saw Stanley Nwabili deny Kouame moments after that, and the Nigeria goalkeeper also kept out a powerful long-range strike by Seko Fofana.
There was a disappointing lack of quality in the final third from both teams, and the game ultimately hinged on the penalty call early in the second half.
Osimhen stayed down in the area after being caught by Ivorian defender Ousmane Diomande, and a spot-kick was given by the Algerian referee after he studied the pitchside monitor.
Defender Troost-Ekong – just as he did in the 2022 World Cup qualifying play-off against Ghana –- stepped up to take the penalty, beating Yahia Fofana with a powerful strike down the middle.
Nigeria then held on through nine added minutes to win the first meeting of the sides at the AFCON since a quarter-final in 2013, the year they last lifted the trophy.