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Strugglers in a strange group


Burkina Faso and Nigeria qualified from Group C, sending the defending champions Zambia, along with Ethiopia, out.

This has turned out to be a very strange group. Very few would have predicted this outcome, certainly not with the Burkinabes topping the group. Zambia have paid the price of not scoring goals and it confirms what I always felt was going to be their Achilles heel. Emmanuel Mayuka's move to Southampton in the English Premier League has not helped him and so he has lacked match fitness or sharpness that a striker of his type needs to be on form.

Not winning a match is very poor for the defending champions, it matters not a jot that they did not lose a game. They were very careless against ten-man Ethiopia and conceded a late equaliser while being very lucky against Nigeria with the gift of a last minute penalty.

It has been a brilliant tournament for Burkina Faso thus far and it is to the great credit of coach Put that they have been solid and, in Alain Traore, have had the player of the group so far.

They rode their luck in getting that late equaliser against Nigeria to rescue a point but were brutally devastating in their match with the Ethiopians where they made light work of a man disadvantage in the 4-0 rout. No team should take them lightly and they will fear no one from here on.

The Nigerian team have made it through the group but have made no friends or supporters back home or even here in South Africa. I have followed the team for a bit since their training base in Faro, Portugal. This is the most inexperienced squad Nigeria has taken to an Afcon tournament since 1990 and even that team was battered in their opening yet made the final.

The coach, Stephen Keshi, has a plan to build a team that will last for a period and sustain Nigeria's attempt at regaining her former glory in terms of African football. That is a good plan. The biggest problem is that Nigeria, Nigerians and Nigerian football administrators have no concept of planning. They want instant success. That there is no infrastructure on ground to give this instant success is totally ignored.

On to the current team. The players were incredibly nervous against Ethiopia and that led to how cautious they were in their play, with no one wanting to make mistakes. It does not detract from the obvious flaws in the team.

John Obi Mikel is a holding midfielder. He also has neither athleticism nor the energy to play as a box-to-box midfielder, which is what he is being asked to do here.

What I cannot deny, watching Mikel in this tournament, is his desire to drive Nigeria to victory. You can see it on his face and he strains every sinew in his play. The look on his face after the late equalisers in the opening matches showed the pain.

Against Burkina Faso he practically ran off the pitch at the final whistle. I just wish he would stick to what he is excellent at doing - breaking up play and giving it simply.

Ogude does the job of being a nuisance properly, so his role is clearly defined.

Nigeria is blessed with at least four very good forwards in Emenike, Uche, Ideye and Moses. The problem is the speed of play and transition in getting these players into threatening positions. It has to be worked on and quickly.

The fitness of Victor Moses is very important to how far this team will go. He has taken over the set-pieces from Mikel's earlier abject attempts. Three times against Ethiopia, the centre-backs Omeruo and Oboabona got their heads to corners, with the latter's effort cleared off the line.

The Chelsea winger is brave, he is very tricky and comfortable on both flanks. He also has an eye for goals, which can be seen all through his times at Wigan and Crystal Palace. He is very calm, as he exhibited with those two high-pressure penalties he converted coolly. Nigerians must cross everything and pray to whatever God they claim to worship in a hugely religious country that he remains fit enough for the next game.

The team has progressed. The coaching crew say they have started work on correcting flaws in the team and making sure they are ready for the next challenges. They certainly have to. They could play Ivory Coast next. What is extraordinary though is the impression one gets that many Nigerians want this team to fail. It is shocking and an indication on how big a task this young group of players face.

The final word on Ethiopia. I spoke to their manager outside the stadium after the match with Nigeria and he was very gracious in defeat and still maintained that he was proud to have led this bunch of lads to the tournament where they scored and got a point. He believes that they are making progress. That strikes me as a man who knows that he and his country's administrators understand the need for planning.


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