Dayo Ojo gives wings to Nigeria's African Nations Championship campaign

Dayo Ojo of Nigeria Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

After Nigeria's first two -- admittedly underwhelming -- displays at the African Nations Championship, much of the frustration among the travelling journalists had been aimed at the team's underperforming forwards.

Admittedly, Sunday Faleye had been a bright light, but Anthony Okpotu had largely flattered to deceive, while Emeka Ogbugh -- lively in patches -- hadn't provided the consistent menace that many had hoped he would.

Okpotu finally got off the mark in the come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday, but the Eagles' victory, and particularly their second-half display, suggested that their problems have not been up front but in midfield.

Coach Salisu Yusuf appeared to spot this ahead of his side's final group game, when he opted to make the only change to his starting XI all tournament, dropping the veteran Rabiu Ali for Dayo Ojo.

The latter can arguably be aggrieved not to have been one of the Super Eagles' starters during this tournament, after coming off the back of a fine NPFL campaign with Sunshine Stars.

He demonstrated his qualities in abundance on Tuesday, and while those who claim that Osas Okoro would have been better pick for Man of the Match may have a point, Ojo was not an unworthy winner of the award.

The 23-year-old represented what has been lacking for Nigeria - and actually, many of the team's at this tournament - a midfield general who could put his foot on the ball, dictate the tempo if required, win back possession, beat a man and begin to construct a coherent attacking approach.

There's a reason that Ojo is nicknamed 'Solution' by his fans at club level.

His superb goal - a lashed strike from outside the area in the 68th minute - was the standout moment and brought back memories of Sunday Oliseh's thunderous effort against Spain at the 1998 World Cup.

However, in truth, Ojo deserves the award for his all-round excellence and for the way that he gave energy to this lethargic Nigerian side.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that he was more dynamic than the man he replaced, 37-year-old Rabiu Ali - the oldest player at this tournament - and this was what the Eagles needed, someone with the vitality to get the best out of the front three.

Speaking to Complete Sports Nigeria after the match, Ojo revealed that it was the determination to make amends from being snubbed from the 2016 CHAN squad that fuelled him after coming on as a substitute against Libya and against Equatorial Guinea.

Certainly, that resolve was evident with the rash tackle that Ojo committed to earn a yellow card moments after coming on against Libya.

Similarly, the determination was present during Tuesday's energetic display in which Ojo notably lifted his teammates and was proactive as the Eagles sought to overturn their first-half deficit.

"I must confess, the disappointment of missing out of Rwanda 2016 has really inspired me to do well in this competition," he told CSN. "It's a good thing that [Salisu Yusuf] was part of the technical crew then recognises my ability and gave me the chance to play for the team again."

Yusuf hinted to KweséESPN after the match that he will continue with Ojo in his midfield for the quarter-final clash.

On the evidence of Tuesday's showing, it will be one of the easiest decisions the coach has to make, with Ojo's performance lifting the Eagles, getting the best out of those around him, and, most crucially, giving Nigeria the control that their superiority ought to ensure.

With Ojo in the heart of the park, the West Africans actually began to look like a team that could go the distance and better their best-ever third-placed finish at the African Nations Championship.