Nigeria will be an enigma at Afcon
As Nigeria prepares for the Afcon with a relatively young and inexperienced tournament team, it is difficult to assess whether Nigeria is indeed one of the favorites or should be simply considered a team that is being rebuilt for a run at qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The roster has one player with one international appearance (Omeruo) and another with the most appearances by a Nigerian international at 88 (Yobo). What I see is a team that is rebuilding with potential to win at this Nations cup but will need a significant dose of luck.
Presently, the Super Eagles cannot be considered the best team at this competition when one considers the profile of its players, experience of the team, or even self-belief. On each of those counts, one has to realistically look the way of Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Zambia to be ahead of Nigeria. But does that mean that the Nigerian team should be counted out? My answer is no and for various other reasons.
Most importantly, Nigeria has a coach who has gradually changed the playing style of the national team and a coach who reportedly is a chief motivator with experience at major competitions. Stephen Keshi has focused on changing Nigeria’s slow and lethargic ball possession style to a quicker pace and ball pressure. Importantly, his team is gradually grasping the importance of maintaining disciplined shape in the ball recovery phase of the game.
These changes may not be easily visible to some and in reality the team still makes mistakes and there are still some of the team players that do not fit the overall scheme, but the trajectory of improvement is clear. Beyond the style of play, Coach Keshi has been widely described as a motivator and one can see it in the improvement in the self-belief of the local players who have developed confidence in their ability to play alongside the foreign-based players.
The coach has not been afraid of throwing them into the fray against foreign foes in games against African, South American, and European opponents. He has trusted them and they have largely confirmed his confidence in them with results even in games where the expectation was that they were going to be blown out of the field.
However, Keshi has not faced teams the caliber of Ivory Coast or Ghana that his team will confront at the upcoming competition. Those games will be the ultimate test for Keshi. One may argue that he played against Egypt and that he played against world stars in the Catalunya game. The reality is that not only were those games friendlies but in the case of Egypt, the Egyptians are really a team on the decline.Keshi’s team, indeed, will need a dose of luck to overcome either Ghana or Ivory Coast. Those two teams are riding high on confidence not only because of their pre-tournament results but because of the experience of the players in the squad and the teams’ recent records in competitions.
Zambia, the defending champion, has even a stronger team compared to the Cup-winning with three key players who missed out last time available. Zambia, however, has had miserable pre-tournament results.
Nigeria’s team wil not easily go down to any of the front runners that I mention above.
The match ups will be scrappy and Nigeria with its ball recovery approach will surely battle for every ball from its midfield and this is where Keshi’s approach will count. His midfield has several players that he can count on to battle on even terms with either Ivory Coast or Ghana. Mikel Obi is perhaps Africa’s best midfield player and he will have the likes of Ogude, Onazi, and Reuben who pressure the ball endlessly. The problem will lie in Nigeria’s defense where the team is not only unsettled but there are visible errors shown on the weak side of zonal defense that the team has applied at times. In goal, experienced Enyeama appears to be visibly on the decline and his agility has been questioned as well as his ability to control the crosses that come across his box. Unfortunately, AustineEjide who was expected to challenge strongly for the No.1 goalkeeping spot is injured and his level of participation in the tournament is a medical guessing game.
On offense, Nigeria has the players on paper but except for the slow IkechukwuUche, no other striker has been consistent in scoring goals. Keshi will be forced to mix and match in this area with only the wide forwards – Ahmed Musa and Victor Musa assured of significant starting minutes. One area that the coach appears to now have more options than ever for a Nigerian team is the set pieces but the results from this will depend on how much hard work that the team has put in to sharpen these areas.
On corner kicks for instance, we have players who are very active in converting such crosses or at least the ability to do so including Yobo, Oboabona, Egwuekwe, Reuben, and Moses. The last time we had anything close was during the era of Victor Agali. Then we also have Egwwuekwewho’s throw-ins are just as good as corner kicks. Again, a trait last seen in a Nigerian team back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, inspite of all of those we have also appeared vulnerable defending set pieces because of poor concentration!
By Professor Chuka Onwumechili