Nigeria, South Africa show ambition in WC qualifier draw

Did Messi or Ronaldo have a better season? (2:36)

ESPN FC's pundits & writers reveal whether they think Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi had a better season. (2:36)

For the second time in less than four months, Nigeria and South Africa played out a 1-1 draw, although this time the result was not about getting to a final, but qualifying for the upcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup.

While South Africa emerged the happier team with the result, it left each side's ambitions of qualifying for the expanded 48-team tournament still in some murky waters. Unfancied Lesotho now lead the group with five points, while South Africa share a three-way tie for second place with four points along with Rwanda and Benin. Nigeria lie in fifth place, two points behind Lesotho.

It was Finidi George's first competitive outing as Super Eagles coach, and with many of his key players missing, he started with a lineup that looked somewhat surprising.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Bayer Leverkusen forward Victor Boniface was left on the bench in favour of Paul Onuachu, as was AC Milan's Samuel Chukwueze while Fisayo Dele-Bashiru and Benjamin Tanimu were handed starts along with Kelechi Iheanacho.

Although Nigeria made a fast start, pinning South Africa in their own defensive third, the visitors weathered the storm, pushed back and were first to score. Teboho Mokoena fired a warning shot first with a free kick that clipped the bar before Themba Zwane danced around the depleted Nigeria defence to fire past goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali from close range.

They looked dangerous for the remainder of the half, bossing the game and finding space behind the Nigeria line, for whom their only attack of note was a header from Onuachu that was comfortably gathered by Ronwen Williams.

That lead did not last very long. The effervescent Dele-Bashiru restored parity 37 seconds after the restart, turning on a dime and holding off his marker to beat Williams with a rasping effort. In what was to be a game of two halves, the Super Eagles dominated the second period, should have forced a red card, were denied a penalty when Dele-Bashiru was wiped out in the box and then saw Chukwueze's finish from a fine combination play with fellow substitute Alhassan Yusuf just bounce off the crossbar.

It was not the best of starts for Finidi, but the one positive to take was that the shambles of a first half was followed by a totally dominating second half. If only the Super Eagles had a clinical forward

Findi switches things around

Despite their assortment of attacking riches, Nigeria made it to the final of this year's Africa Cup of Nations on the back of a new-found solid, disciplined and organised defensive structure under Jose Peseiro. That structure was built on a three centre-back deployment which made the team very hard to break down at the tournament.

Finidi George was part of that technical staff, as he had been for the 21 months of Peseiro's tenure. When the former winger took over the job in an interim capacity, he largely stuck to the same structure, albeit with a slightly more attacking bent in the two friendlies against Ghana and Mali.

Against South Africa however, Finidi ditched all that and went for an aggressive 4-3-3. It would have been tough enough with the usual personnel. Without his regular backline, it was a hard watch. Finidi was forced to make some tough personnel decisions. With Zaidu Sanusi, Jamilu Collins and Bruno Onyemaechi all out to injury, the coach had his top three left-back choices all out.

He was forced to deploy Bright Osayi-Samuel, a right back in the position. Benjamin Tanimu, usually a centre back, was deployed at right back. Thankfully, he had the returning Wilfred Ndidi to place in front of them. It did not help much. And it proved to be a train wreck of a first half. The one thing they did right was play the high line and catch the Bafana Bafana forwards on the offside trap over and over again.

It remains something of a mystery why George decided to go in that direction, when Bafana coach Hugo Broos, anticipating the change, had spoken about going after the Nigeria defence before his team left South Africa.

Bashiru shines bright

With no Victor Osimhen in the team, Ademola Lookman and Victor Boniface were expected to stake their claim for man of the match honours. Instead, it was the virtually unknown Fisayo Dele-Bashiru who stood out, and not just for the goal he scored.

The former Manchester City player offered himself as the attacking outlet for almost all of Nigeria's offensive forays, making himself available to pick up the ball between the lines and run at the Bafana Bafana defence.

It was no surprise that he scored the game-tying goal. Nor that he was taken clean out by Mothobi Mvala when he looked through on goal again. How he did not win a penalty and a card of any colour for that challenge in the box must be one of the more head-scratching calls of this series so far.

A measure of how bad the tackle was is that within minutes, Dele-Bashiru was unable to continue and had to be subbed off.

Onuachu takes unfair flak

In his time with the national team, Paul Onuachu has largely underwhelmed. For a player who got on the radar for scoring almost at will during his time in Belgium, and now in Turkey, his return of just one international goal so far is abysmal, and he rightfully gets flak for it.

But not in this game. While he may have kept up his goal drought for Nigeria, Onuachu certainly did many good things. His hold-up play was good, he regularly won fouls off of the Bafana defence, and if the referee were a little more attentive South Africa would have gone home with way more than the three yellow cards they picked up. He had a header saved and then set up Dele-Bashiru for the goal.

Unfortunately, the now baked-in disillusionment Nigerian fans carry for him blinded most to his performance and he is taking some undeserved criticism as a result.

Barebones defence holds out, but only just

There were moments in that first half where it felt for all the world that it was only a matter of time before this ragtag Super Eagles defence was run ragged and the dam opened.

It was not to be. The makeshift personnel held on, and their high line perfectly kept the Bafana Bafana forwards offside.

They lacked pace for the most part, Benjamin Tanimu looked the part, of not being a right back, while Osayi-Samuel, who has shone at right back, looked off on the opposite side. Semi Ajayi does much better playing in a back three.

Now, Finidi has even more trouble going into Monday's game after he admitted in the post match press conference that Ajayi was substituted because he suffered a knock.

Finidi shows there is hope yet

The lineup may have been awkward and the first-half may have been hideous to watch, but the second-half showed that the Super Eagles team, from the bench to the starting side are capable of turning things around in these qualifiers.

Dominated in the first half, they came back, made adjustments and took controlling in the second. Finidi's substitutions were pass mark worthy, although fans wondered why Boniface was not thrown on. Finidi had an explanation.

"We wanted to introduce Boniface and Moffi, but Semi had a knock and we had to take him off and introduce Moffi and Onyedika instead," Finidi said.

Of course there are still questions as to why it was Moffi rather than Boniface, but that is up to the coach, and like he said: "allow us to do our jobs." The good news is that nobody is running away with the group as yet, and if the Super Eagles can get a win against former coach Gernot Rohr's Benin on Monday, they would be right back in it.

The bad news is that they cannot afford another draw on Monday. That would all but torpedo their chances, and possibly Finidi's job.