Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ides of June: Half-way Report

 I AM writing Soccertalk earlier than usual this week partly to make up for my absence last week; and partly because I was determined to publish before the Super Eagles commenced their campaign at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. I didn’t want their performance out there, however good or bad, to affect the views that had formed in my mind concerning how well they have fared so far in this pivotal month of June 2013.

When I wrote the article, “Beware, the Ides of June,” a few weeks back, my objective was to alert coach Stephen Keshi and his boys to the danger that lay in wait for Nigeria’s 2014 World Cup aspirations if they didn’t sit up, or if they took their opponents for granted. After Kenya came to Calabar in March and nearly created an upset against the freshly-crowned African Champions, I tipped the Eagles to win the return leg in Nairobi because of the obvious talent gap between the two sides, never mind the tough-talking  by the Kenyans. But as the game beckoned, I deliberately switched to a cautious mode so that our boys did not get carried away by their “superiority” and fail to take preparations seriously.

The Eagles have since beaten Kenya 1-0 in Nairobi to allay fears of Nigeria not reaching the final round of the African World Cup qualifiers. Before that, the Eagles played out a 2-2 draw in a preparatory match with Mexico in the USA. And, after the Kenya game, they have played another 1-1 draw with Namibia to consolidate their sole leadership of their World Cup qualifying section. These are the three games that constitute Nigeria’s first half-term report for June 2013. Our outing at the Confederations Cup will make up the second half-term report. A critical appraisal of the first half-term will lead us to set a proper expectation for the second half-term…

Mexico 2, Nigeria 2: The Super Eagles were completely outplayed in the opening stages of this game. The Mexicans played in the modern way with fast breaks and quick transitions from defence to attack. They could have been two or three goals up early on but for poor marksmanship on their part and good fortune on Nigeria’s side. When Manchester United’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez inevitably scored the opening goal for Mexico, Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo in our central defence were caught flat-footed.

 It wasn’t until Mexico was reduced to 10 men via a red card and Brown Ideye scored from the resultant penalty that the Eagles started getting a hold on the match. Even then, they seemed content with playing to the gallery and show-boating, attempting 25-yard passes when a three-yard pass to a teammate close by would have been more efficient. It was a thoroughly unprofessional ‘demonstration of skill’ by our so-called European-based professionals.

 Even though Nigeria scored a fortuitous, deflected goal to lead 2-1 at half-time, the fact that it was Mexico that finished the second half stronger even with 10 men confirmed which side was more focused. Not only did Chicharito get an equalizer when the Nigerian defence went to sleep again, the more purposeful North Americans came closer to getting the winner as well.

My verdict: The 2-2 result flattered the Eagles. They were not efficient.  They couldn’t create clear-cut chances with their numerical advantage. The major positive for Nigeria, though, was the new boy, John Ogu, whose left foot on the ball was a delight to watch. With proper handling, he could become the creative force with the passing skill and vision that has been lacking in Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles. Kenya 0, Nigeria 1; Namibia 1, Nigeria 1: I am taking these two games together because Nigeria’s performances in both were identical. We confronted two teams with far less quality than us, we dominated both games for long periods, but we couldn’t kill off either team with an emphatic score line.

Ordinarily, four points out of six (one win, one draw) from two away games is impressive, especially as the Eagles have been poor travellers on the African continent for some time now. But had our main group rivals Malawi with whom we were tied on five points taken the full six points from their two home games against Namibia and Kenya, we wouldn’t be celebrating four points now. Malawi slipped to home draws and collected only two points, thereby helping Nigeria’s cause. I expect the Eagles to finally close out the group ticket when Malawi visit us in September. But what will happen in the final round of the African qualifiers when all 10 group winners are drawn against each other for the continent’s five World Cup tickets is open to conjecture.

While Nigeria was struggling to win 1-0 in Kenya and draw 1-1 in Namibia, some of our potential final round opponents were making their intent known with emphatic score lines also away from home. Cote d’Ivoire crushed Gambia 3-0 away; Ghana, playing with 10 men for long periods, beat Sudan 3-1 away; Egypt defeated Mozambique 4-2 on the road. The only high profile casualty was Cameroun that lost 2-0 to Togo. But we are all aware that the present Cameroun team are more of pussy-cats than Indomitable Lions.

For sure, Nigeria, as African champions, will be a different proposition for any other big nation, were we to meet in the final round. The Eagles proved this by the manner of their Nations Cup victory in South Africa last February. But the greater probability in two-leg affairs is that each big nation will win its home leg, thus leaving goal difference to decide which teams will go to Brazil 2014.

Clearly, Nigeria is having difficulty scoring goals compared with our rivals-in-waiting. In Nairobi, it took a ’fluke’ goal by the otherwise disappointing Ahmed Musa (he hardly made a good cross in 90 minutes!) to steal the win. In Windhoek, our strikers kept shooting blanks until Oboabona saved our blushes with a late free-kick equalizer. We may console ourselves with the injury-enforced absence of Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses and say that the Eagles goals ratio will improve  when these key players return to the team. But the problem goes deeper than that. Mikel Obi and Ogenyi Onazi are getting better and better playing the holding midfield roles. What the Eagles need now is an intelligent playmaker with the natural flair to consistently deliver clever passes to our strikers. And when the passes come, we need strikers with the focus and composure to consistently put the ball in the net.Will we see any signs of those improvements in the Super Eagles at the Confederations Cup, ahead of the final World Cup qualifiers? The second half of June 2013 will provide an answer.

> The Perfect Draw

NIGERIA couldn’t have asked for a better draw at the on-going Confederations Cup in Brazil. Playing in Group B, our first game is against Tahiti who are a lowly number 138th on the current FIFA monthly world rankings. The Oceania champions are the weakest team in the whole tournament, and the Eagles (ranked 31st) couldn’t have started with an easier opener. Thereafter, Nigeria will face a stronger opponent in Uruguay (ranked 19th) before squaring up against the strongest team in the group, Spain, who are ranked number one by FIFA.

What that sequence of matches could give the Eagles is a perfect chance to warm-up into the tournament and build confidence gradually. A win over Tahiti will put the team in a good frame of mind for the Uruguay game, knowing that a second win may secure a semi-final ticket even before the crunch game with power-houses Spain. The Eagles could then play the world champions in a very relaxed manner. Furthermore, Nigeria’s recent warm-up game with Mexico (2-2) should be a good preparation for the clash with Uruguay, while the experience of last year’s friendly with Barcelona-dominated Catalunya (1-1) should also come in handy when we face Spain. All these postulations, however, rest on a victorious start against Tahiti on Monday night. Otherwise, the so-called ‘perfect draw’ may end up in disappointment for the Super Eagles.

The Bonus Row

l“I THOUGHT we had put greedy agitations behind us for good and that the Eagles were now on the same page as us on this bonus issue. But with the FA saying it’s broke one moment and behaving contrary the next, can we really blame the boys?”

The foregoing was my comment on Twitter two weeks ago when ‘rumour’ first broke that the Super Eagles were agitating for their bonus from our “broke” Nigeria Football Federation (Broke indeed). The rumour was confirmed last week when the team refused to board the plane from South Africa to Brazil for the Confederations Cup until the outstanding bonuses were paid.

I shall reserve my comments on the matter until the players, coaches and NFF officials return home from the championship. But my preliminary comment is that, by refusing to travel on schedule thus arriving the tournament late; by ridiculing their own country and embarrassing millions of Nigerian football fans at home and abroad; by disregarding the fact that they were actually representing the whole of Africa at the Confederations Cup, the Super Eagles took their protest too far.

4 comments:

  1. Oga Mumini,
    Your observations are spot on, as usual.
    The fault-lines currently appearing in Keshi's team are basically a consequence of attitude.
    It appears your warnings about our handling of our unforeseen AFCON success have gone unheeded.
    Creeping into this team are worrying ripples of pride; first surfacing in Yobo's open revolt at being left out, and culminating in the recent appalling protest about bonus payments.
    It's an open secret: sport is 40% Skill; 60% Psychology. Because the mind dictates performance, attitude carries a lot of weight.
    The post-AFCON performances of these Eagles provide damning evidence of the players' attitude.
    None of the 5 matches played since Nigeria's AFCON triumph reflect the prowess of the team during that tournament.
    The collective and individual performance-indices have plunged: Pressing. Pass Completion. Marksmanship. Defence.
    The game against Tahiti on Monday laid bare all these present short-comings.
    That game should have been over as a contest after 20 minutes, instead the Eagles permitted it to degenerate into a farce.
    The post-mortem generally attributed the performance to players' fatigue.
    But fatigue is no excuse for the catalogue of school-boy misses; wasted were 6 one-ones with the amateur Tahiti keeper. In a grade A international game, that is unacceptable.
    The unanimous praise won by this team at AFCON now seems a long time ago.
    The general verdict was that the work-ethic (grit) of this class of Eagles was a vital force for greater achievements.
    That work-ethic, sadly, has been missing since February.
    Keshi needs to address the fault-lines now before his project comes crashing down.
    Oga Mumini, based on performance during the Tahiti game, I fear for the Uruguay game tonight.
    I do not want a thorough thrashing by Uruguay to be the sign for these Eagles to "come down to earth".

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  2. I think the Eagles have done ok so far in overcoming the ides of June without being impressive. I will score them 60% over 100% thus far for getting 4 points out of 6 and remaining on top of their group. Beating Tahiti earns them no point! They have no business not winning that game at least 10-0 & this may come to hunt us unless the players raise their game against Uruguay tonite. They will earn additional 10 points if they beat Uruguay and make the semi-final of the Confederations cup while winning the trophy will earn them 80% while they will earn the maximum 100% IF WE QUALIFY FOR THE WORLD CUP.

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  3. The simple truth which everyone seems hesitant to address is that Keshi is gradually losing it.
    I sensed this right after his AFCON resignation saga and I voiced my opinion on couple of blogs but I was shouted down by flood of Keshi supporter who made Keshi the center of AFCON success. His confrontation with NFF then was unnecessary and it sowed the first seed of dissatisfaction among the team and management. Then the Emenike and Yobo issues followed with Keshi at the center of both. Most fans blamed the players and hailed Keshi as the boss. The players were called ungrateful and proud. No one noticed that these players have no known history of confrontation with coaches and administrators before. Keshi again was completely blameless. He simply can do no wrong.
    Then the Namibia saga and people felt those bunch of players have the spine and character to stage that kind of protest without the boss influence. Enyeama and Mikel are the only high profile player in that team that could have spearheaded the revolt but history and character profiling of these 2 disqualify them as capable. The others to me are boys looking for glory and opportunities to enhance their career so I doubt if they would readily want to risk an opportunity players all over the world can only dream to showcase themselves before the whole world through the ConFed.
    I see Keshi's pulling the string behind all these. He has shown as player and now coach his preference for confrontation rather than diplomacy and negotiation.
    Now Keshi's choice of players are questionable but no one seems courageous enough to speak out against the big boss. I look at the bench and quality of players in the team now and I wonder whether we now totally sacrifice talent, skills, age and even passion for only coach interest and preference for certain players. Keshi needs to strike a balance between all these criteria but no one wants to be accused of interference.
    Keshi needs to be told this ugly truths or we would not help him on the long run. Keshi has achieved some commendable things as a coach in Mali and Togo, but he never seems to be able to consolidate on this success for one reason or the other. If Keshi wants to become the greatest coach in Africa, he should tow the path of humility and wisdom in his dealings with administrators, players and fans and fight the Martin Luther King popularized "drum major instinct"
    As for the fans, we have some roles to play too. Enough praise singing for now. Time to start being non-partisan, fair and objective...

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  4. Nigerian Football team has finest players in the world - http://www.ngr24.com/

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