Super Eagles not super yet
Stephen Keshi's Super Eagles appeared to have turned the corner in their last two matches, drubbing plucky Liberia 6-1 and beating Venezuela 3-1.
High-scoring as they were, have they really given the coach grounds for optimism ahead of next year’s Africa Cup of Nations? Can the coach now beat his chest and say his players have come a long way within a short time and that his rebuilding process is almost complete?
The answer is obviously NO.
The victory over Liberia in Calabar was a morale-booster and a fitting end to the qualifying series as the result seems to have created the impression that the Eagles are truly back after missing out in 2012, but there were obvious flaws in the team's overall play, which perhaps serves as a reminder that the rebuilding process still has a long way to go. Right now, time is what nobody has as the Cup of Nations is barely a month away.
Having said that, the Eagles could take home some positives from the Liberia game as the midfield and attack did show more promise than in previous games. The inclusion of Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi brought more composure in the middle, while starting two wide men seemed to give the attack cutting edge. However, the defence remains a major source of concern.
Despite not conceding lots of goals in the matches played so far, probably due to the level of opposition, the Eagles have not defended well, with the individual players exhibiting a lot of rawness and inexperience. Joseph Yobo reportedly criticised the performances of Juwon Oshaniwa, Godfrey Oboabona and Azubuike Egwuekwe after the draw in Monrovia but had to retract his statement after being pulled up by the press about his own form. While it may not have helped team spirit Yobo did have a point.
Oshaniwa, Oboaboana and Egwuekwe are part of the new breed of players Keshi introduced to the side from the domestic league so as to make the defence more compact, but it has since become more porous and uncoordinated. Oboabona and Egwuekwe have played every minute of Nigeria's last twelve matches, but playing them time and time again to ensure proper blending has not achieved the desired result, neither has there been an improvement individually in their game at international level.
It is important to make a distinction between the levels of competition because they may be good players in the Nigeria Premier League but football at international level is an entirely different ball game irrespective of the opposition. Oshaniwa, for one, is a player that impressed me while at Sharks, but the step-up to Super Eagles has not been easy for him. Also Oboabona looked every inch a leader during Sunshine Stars’ Champions League campaign, while Egwuekwe appeared solid when I watched him play for Warri Wolves against Dolphins in Port Harcourt, but they have not brought the same qualities to Nigeria's games.
Keshi cannot be blamed for attempting to rebuild the team as his first two games in charge against Botswana and Zambia with the established players were nothing to write home about. If his experimentation is not yielding the desired results in time then he has to turn elsewhere for solutions as preparations for the Afcon intensify.
Firstly, there is no established right-back. This position has been filled by either Efe Ambrose or Oboabona, who are mainly central defenders, while Sunshine Stars’ Solomon Kwambe has been tried lately. Yet there is a Nigerian doing well in that position in a recognised league in Europe. Kenneth Omeruo is not a stranger to Nigerian football as he made his name playing for the Flying Eagles at the last Under-20 World Cup, after which he moved to Standard Liege. He was snapped up by Chelsea in January, but loaned out almost immediately to Dutch side ADO Den Haag where he has made the right wing-back shirt his property.
Why Omeruo's name has been constantly linked to the Flying Eagles, where he has already proved himself, instead of the Super Eagles where he should have been getting much needed international experience remains baffling and an indictment on the (now dissolved) NFF Technical Committee (unless they can prove the coaches ignored their advice to invite him).
Akeem Latifu, another former junior international, should be considered for competition in this position. He presently plays for Hodd in the second tier of Norwegian football. He is a key player for the club and has had top flight experience, having previously played for Stromsgodset.
At left-back Taye Taiwo should be given a chance to fight for a place because Oshaniwa and Elderson Echiejile have not done enough to justify his exclusion. He may have fallen out of favour at Milan but he has still been able to ply his trade with clubs at the upper echelons of the European game. He is still one of Africa's top left wingbacks.
The central defence also needs to be reinforced. Despite moving to Celtic and posting some eye-catching performances in the Champions League, Ambrose has not really put up sterling performances for the Super Eagles. Yobo too may be a key player for Fenerbahce but he is no longer the rock of the Nigerian defence. Therefore he needs a solid, in-form partner to compliment his efforts. Danny Shittu of Millwall is that man. Always committed to the green and white shirt and back to his best in the English Championship, he appears the best option at the moment and should be invited to camp.
The national camp is also a place where those with potential bide their time understudying established players so those who do not appear to be ready should learn from others rather than being thrown in at the deep end.
Transition is all about bringing positive changes to the side whenever the need arises. Mikel's availability for the Liberia game meant Ejike Uzoenyi was also dropped from the starting line-up for the first time since he made his debut against Angola in January, and the impact of Mikel’s introduction was clear for all to see.
The prospects of his combination with Nosa Igiebor and Onazi in the middle of the park are mouth-watering. Shola Ameobi's introduction against Venezuela has equally thrown up exciting options in the attack. For once we saw a striker hold up the ball before picking out a better placed teammate to score. The defence also needs a positive change.
Keshi is considered one of the best ever defenders to have played for Nigeria and surely he must have observed the lapses in his back line. It was not a coincidence he called up Onyekachi Apam the last time, and he would do well extend his search for those ideal for the task ahead. It would be in the best interest of his team if he makes the necessary changes rather than indulging in some sort of bravado by sticking with his discoveries. It would be a huge gamble relying on the defence as presently constituted. He should at least invite more tested names to increase the competition.
Football is a game of balance and I'm confident that, by the start of the Cup of Nations, Keshi will have built a more compact team with an improved back line because the materials to achieve this are at his disposal.