Marauding Umar leads Dream Team into quarterfinals


Nigeria’s Dream Team VI booked their place in the quarterfinals of the men’s soccer event of the Rio 2016 Olympics, following a lone goal victory over Sweden at the Amazona Arena in Manaus on Monday morning.

Nigeria entered the game seeking to imprint the gung ho approach that produced two goals in four of the opening 10 minutes against Japan. While their dominance in the opening exchanges was never under threat, they were facing a solid Swedish side, which meant there were no clear-cut chances early on.

Sweden slowly began climbing into the game but never quite tested Emmanuel Daniel in goal.

The chances began filtering in as the first half approached its midway mark, but a combination of anxiety and poor decision-making saw the Dream Team waste a number of opportunities, Oghenekaro Etebo and Sadiq Umar the major culprits.

Notably, in the 30th minute, a patiently-worked buildup play left the ball at the feet of Umar, but the AS Roma frontman sent his effort straight at goalkeeper Andreas Linde.

Etebo soon flashed a shot past Linde’s goal and — minutes later — wasted what was up till that point the best chance of the game. Imoh Ezekiel, who had been lively all night, swerved a fine cross to a free Etebo, but the CD Feirense forward could only glance his header above the post.

It seemed only a matter of time before the Dream Team broke the deadlock; and that was exactly what happened on the dot of 39 minutes, when the enterprising Stanley Amuzie struck a sweet cross towards Umar, who curled a flying header past the outstretched hands of Linde. For the first time in the match, Umar, cutting a frustrated figure earlier with each missed chance, was beaming with smiles. It was reward for all of his hard work, having harassed the Swedish defend for much of the match.

It was the Swedes who were down and in dire need of a goal, but it was the Nigerians who resumed the second half on the stronger footing, Mikel Obi uncharacteristically drawing Linde into a diving save after Umar had unselfishly laid a pass down for him on the edge of the penalty box.

Etebo nearly scored a goal-of-the-tournament contender in the 51st minute when he picked up the ball from the left flank and drove it past a maze of Swedish defenders before unleashing a curler that seemed destined for the far right corner of the net. But Linde was on hand to tip it out for a corner kick.

Nigeria looked the likelier side to get a goal, doing all the buildup play and pressing, while the Swedes resorted to playing long balls that always ended up fruitless — but two of them could have lifted the European champions into the game, were it not for the alertness of Daniel, who played the role of a sweeper a la Manuel Neuer.

Joakim Nilsson nearly sparked an unlikely comeback for the Swedes in the first minute of added time, releasing a cutback for a teammate when the Nigerian defenders were expecting a cross, but Sincere Seth displayed a great deal of composure to divert the resultant shot off the goalpost.

With two wins from two games — and Thursday’s 2-2 draw between Sweden and Colombia meaning only one team in the group can now finish above the Dream Team at worst — Nigeria secured passage to the quarterfinals with a game to spare.

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