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Nigeria Hold Paraguay To Draw

Late Okocha penalty salvages draw for Nigeria

Kanu challenges Roque Santa Cruz for the ball.

LONDON, March 26 (Reuters) - An experimental Nigerian team salvaged a 1-1 draw with Paraguay at neutral Loftus Road on Tuesday thanks to an 83rd-minute penalty from Austin Okocha after the far more impressive South Americans had led for most of the match.

Paraguay seemed set to begin their countdown to the World Cup finals with what would have been a deserved victory over a makeshift Nigeria side after taking the lead in a lively match through Carlos Gamarra on 20 minutes.

He gave Nigerian goalkeeper Austin Ejids no chance with a powerful header from a Francisco Arce corner and Paraguay can only rue not winning the game after a series of missed chances.

They were far the better team, dominating with some controlled passing football for long spells.

But Nigeria, missing at least eight first team players - including Taribo West who was supposed to be in the squad but never showed up for the match - rallied as the second half progressed and saved their best for the last 10 minutes when they equalised and forced substitute goalkeeper Ricardo Tavarelli into making a brilliant save from Bartholomew Ogbeche.

English referee Steve Bennett awarded Nigeria the penalty after judging that Celso Ayalo handled the ball. Okocha gave Tavarelli no chance with his spot kick to send the vociferous Nigerian majority in the 6,000 crowd wild with delight.

Besides his goal, Gamarra had a second-half shot parried away and both sides went close to scoring as the match progressed.


Nigerian coach Festus Onigbinde, in charge of the team for the first time following the recent sacking of Shaibu Amodu after Nigeria disappointed in the African Nations Cup, said he was delighted with his team's performance - especially the younger players who were largely untried at this level.

'I was happy with the result and the performance of the boys was encouraging,' he said afterwards.

Of the 11 that started for Nigeria, only Nwankwo Kanu, Okocha and Celestine Babayaro would expect to be in the starting lineup for Nigeria's first World Cup match against Argentina on June 2, but Onigbinde was optimistic his men had laid the first foundation stone of their World Cup challenge.

'We do have work to do, in the defence, midfield and attack, but I saw a lot tonight which was very encouraging,' he said.

Paraguay's Italian coach Cesare Maldini, in charge for only the second time said: 'I thought it was a fair result, but we had a lot of chances to win it. We played some very good football and I am pleased with the performance.'

Jose Luis Chilavert, Paraguay's extrovert goalkeeper and captain added: 'We did play very well in the first half, especially from dead ball situations. We worked well as a team and are improving. We have a lot of options in attack and we have the basis to do very well in the World Cup. We won't fear anyone.'

Paraguay will face Spain, Slovenia and South Africa in the finals, while Nigeria meet England, Argentina and Sweden.


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