Italy forced Nigeria to a 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage on Monday night, both teams ending a thrilling World Cup warm up on a deservedly high note in front of England’s management team of Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington.
Veteran Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi, who was only making his fifth appearance for the African champions, justified his inclusion in the coach Stephen Keshi-tutored side by providing the assist for Nigeria’s equalizer before pulling the West Africans ahead.
Sunderland forward Emmanuele Giaccherini ensured a fourth successive draws for the Azzuris when he smashed home Italy’s equaliser shortly after the restart to help share the spoils in one of the best matches to be seen at the Fulham ground for a long time.
The last time Nigeria played the Italians was in the round of 32 of the 1994 FIFA World Cup when Roberto Baggio inspired a late onslaught to deny the then African champions a place in the quarter-finals in their debut appearance.
Aside from beating Bulgaria in the 1998 France World Cup- same year it reached the knock out stage for a last time- Nigeria have disappointingly failed to make it past the group stages in her previous two appearances in the biggest world’s football competition.
With both coaches seeking to start the experimentation for the next summer’s World Cup on time, Prandelli made eight changes from
the side which drew 1-1 with Germany at the San Siro last weekend while Keshi opted for seven new faces from the side which finished off the race to Brazil on Saturday against Ethiopia in his first friendly in charge against European opposition.
Despite arriving London just on Sunday, the fatigue was never a problem for the Super Eagles which got their first sight at goal in the opening exchanges as Victor Moses’ mishit free-kick whistled inches past the Italian’s goal post.
But Italy soon got back into the affair as Serie A’s highest goal-scorer, Guiseppe Rossi (11 goals for Fiorentina so far this season) did not waste his chance after being put through by Mario Balotelli.
The former Manchester City striker, who was all smiles during the Azuris training following his first return to English soil, held off the challenge of Warri Wolves Azubuike Egwuekwe before sliding in an inch perfect pass into the path of Rossi which was slotted home by the latter in the 12th minute.
Italy maintained possession for most of the first-half, while Nigeria’s attack, orchestrated by Liverpool loanee Moses and the outstanding young Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, lacked precision in front of goal.
AC Milan striker, Balotelli, was denied a good chance to double Italy’s lead few minutes after the half-hour mark, shooting straight at Nigeria keeper Austin Ejide after a sweeping move involving Rossio and Riccardo Montolivo.
Nigeria hit back at their opponents ten minutes before the break when John Obi Mikel picked out, Ameobi, who delivered a perfect cross for Bright Dike, and rising above his marker Manuel Pasqual, the Toronto striker’s bullet header flew past Salvatore Sirigu into the net.
Moments later, Ameobi turned scorer from Francis Benjamin’s assist. The Zaria-born footballer impressively held off Angelo Ogbona to steer a volley past Sirigu.
But less than a couple of minutes into the restart, Giaccherini restored parity for Prandelli’s men, as the Sunderland player was left unmarked in the Nigeria area to rifle in Antonio Candreva’s ball.
Juventus midfielder Andre Pirlo was then introduced to the huge delight of the Italian fans and he came close to pulling the Europeans ahead when Ejide could only palm his free-kick into the path of fellow substitute Marco Parolo who somehow managed to put the rebound over the bar from close range.
Italy would have gone back into the lead only for Parolo’s low drive to hit the post.
Substitute John Ogu produced a superb one-handed stop from Sirigu before Balotelli sliced Christian Maggio’s cross horribly wide from close range.
With four minutes to go Alessandro Diamanti almost sealed victory for the Azzuris when his well-taken free-kick crashed off the crossbar with substitute Vincent Enyeama well beaten.