England's management team of Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington were highly interested observers on a return to their old stamping ground last night as two potential World Cup opponents served up the best match seen at Craven Cottage for a long time..
The two former Fulham managers will have left with much to ponder. While Italy are always tough opponents on this evidence Nigeria could also provide an uncomfortable encounter. Despite fielding a team largely drawn from the domestic league and lesser European teams Nigeria gave Italy a more testing night than they could have expected given the African champions only arrived in London on Sunday after completing their World Cup qualification on Saturday. With the quality of Victor Moses, John Obi Mikel, Shola Ameobi and the outstanding young Lazio midfelder Ogenyi Onazi providing a framework for their less exalted team-mates Nigeria deserved their draw.
Italy, too, were understrength with Cesare Prandelli making eight changes from the team which drew with Germany on Friday. That still meant a forward pair of Mario Balotelli and Guiseppe Rossi were attacking a Nigerian back four who represent Sunshine Stars, Warri Warriors, Heartland and Turkish club Cagkur Rizaspor.
It seemed a mis-match and Balotelli soon turned Warriors' Azubuike Egwuekwe and slid in Rossi for Italy's opener. But after Austine Ejide denied Balotelli Toronto's Bright Dike headed in at the far post to level. Nigeria even went into the break ahead with Ameobi superbly converting Francis Benjamin's left-wing cross at the near post after Moses had launched the attack.
Italy returned playing a much higher tempo and though Balotelli was denied again Sunderland's Emanuele Giaccherini soon equalised. To huge cheers Andrea Pirlo arrived and promptly drew a marvellous save from Ejide. Marco Parolo and Alessandro Diamante both stuck the woodwork but Nigeria held on to further stiffen their rising belief. They have not built on the promise shown in the 1990s but under a local coach, Stephen Keshi, they won the Cup of African Nations last year. Maybe the West African powerhouse are about to pull their weight..
Italy will not be too discouraged. Prandelli took over after the wreckage of Italy’s dismal 2010 World Cup - the four-time winners somehow came bottom of their group behind Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand – and took them into the final of Euro 2012. They were then well beaten by Spain, but the memory remained of Balotelli tearing Germany apart in the semi-final.
The Azzurri subsequently cruised to World Cup qualification and in 19 matches this year only Argentina and Brazil have beaten them, the latter in the Confederations Cup which Italy exited only on penalties after pushing Spain to their limits in the semi-finals. They will, as ever, be contenders.