Hey celebrates Ally Niyonzima showing vs. Nigeria

Ally Niyonzima of Rwanda Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

Rwanda coach Antoine Hey has lauded midfielder Ally Niyonzima after the AS Kigali man played a key role in the Amavubi's 0-0 African Nations Championship opener against Nigeria.

The tiny East African nation were outsiders heading into their first CHAN against the continental heavyweights, but held their own to stymie the Eagles' threat and could even have won the match in the second half after carving out several fine chances.

Speaking to KweséESPN after the match, Hey credited the impact of 22-year-old Niyonzima, who held his own against the much more experienced Rabiu Ali, and enjoyed a pivotal influence as Rwanda neutralised Nigeria's aerial threat.

"[Niyonzima] had an excellent match today against this strong Nigerian side that played some very nice balls into our box and around the box," Hey began. "[There were also] some very long throw-ins, [which were] really dangerous.

Indeed, Daniel Itodo's bullet-like long-range throw-ins were a key weapon in Nigeria's arsenal, particularly as the game wore on and they ran out of ideas to break down Rwanda's stubborn defence.

However, the 6'2 Niyonzima ensured that Nigeria never enjoyed any aerial joy in the Rwandan box, and also dropped deep to contain the brooding threat of Anthony Okpotu.

"It was very important to have him on board," Hey continued. "He played a very fine match - the first time in this position, and the first time we've played in this set up, or system.

"It was a little bit different from what we played in the qualifiers - more defensively orientated - and it worked."

Niyonzima was just one of several defensive players who impressed during a fine display, even if goalkeeper Eric Ndayishimiye occasionally failed to hold onto the ball after deliveries from Osas Okoro or Sunday Faleye.

"Our back three played a top match and I can't single one out," added Hey. "Djihad [Bizimana] was man of the match today in midfield.

"We are asking a lot of these players; very young players playing in the Rwandan league, and playing against the big boys here on the continent," the German coach concluded. "We are asking a lot of them and they are doing it.

"They are performing and I'm very proud of them."

Rwanda could take a significant step towards the quarter finals if they beat Equatorial Guinea in their second group game on Friday, while Nigeria are set to face Libya in their second Group C clash.