Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thank You, Malawi

BEFORE anyone misunderstands my headline as the product of an over-critical mindset, let me quickly congratulate the Super Eagles for a well-deserved victory over Malawi last weekend in Calabar. The 2-0 win ensured that Nigeria topped her African zone World Cup qualifying  Group ‘F’ with 12 points, thus earning a place in the final play-offs for the continent’s five World Cup slots. That (play-off slot) was our initial target right from the start of the group series. Now that the objective has been achieved, the fair thing to do is give kudos to coach Stephen Keshi and his team. Well done, lads.

However, the job is only half-way done. The other half of the job is the final play-offs amongst the ten African qualifying group winners.

 The draw for that decisive knock-out stage will be conducted next week at the CAF headquarters in Cairo. The match-ups will be two-legged affairs to be decided either on points, goals difference or away goals rule in that order. Essentially, GOALS (scored or conceded) will be very, very crucial in determining which teams will pick Africa’s five tickets to the Mundial. That is why I am saying “Thank you” to Malawi.

Last weekend, Malawi, despite being completely outplayed and eventually beaten, were able to underline yet again, that the Super Eagles still have work to do on how to put the ball in the net clinically and more proficiently. Malawi’s coach Tom Saintfiet’s defensive approach to the game was quite predictable since he was playing away and against a more accomplished opponent such as Nigeria. At the post-match conference, he confirmed that his strategy had been to sit back in defence, keep the match goalless for  as long as possible, then start foraging for goals towards the end when anxiety would have started setting in for the Eagles, had they not scored earlier.

Saintfiet’s tactic is not rocket science. It is a common strategy usually adopted by away teams visiting a strong opponent. We see it nearly everyday in European football. And we shall see it again in the final play-offs of the African World Cup qualifiers.

Irrespective of the country Nigeria draws in the play-off, the Eagles must brace themselves to face an “iron curtain” when our opponents come calling. Like Malawi, they will park their bus in defence, frustrate our attackers and make life extremely difficult. It is up to Keshi and his crew to come up with an effective counter-plan. It’s not going to be easy to execute. But the time to start planning with Emmanuel Emenike, Nnamdi Oduamadi, Brown Ideye, Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa,Shola Ameobi, Uche Nwofor and Obinna Nsofor is now.

After months of “rebuilding” the Eagles, it appears that Keshi has finally settled  for this lot to pick his strike force. What remains to be settled now is the most effective first choice combination.

A handsome home win with a comfortable goal margin is non-negotiable for Nigeria in the play-offs because the away leg does not promise much for the Eagles.  As we have seen in the just-ended group series, the Eagles are very poor travellers in Africa. No two football matches are the same because the conditions and several other variables are different. But if the Eagles could struggle so much during their visits to Malawi, Namibia and Kenya, their prospects when visiting the likes of Egypt or Cameroon are not likely to be brighter. Nigeria’s best bet, therefore, is to target a very good home win with lots of goals in the kitty.

Ahead of  the play-offs, the safest prediction is that all 10 teams will strive hard to win their home legs at the minimum. If that happens, it’s goal difference that will decide which teams will go to the Mundial.

There was a little confusion about whether the seeded teams in the play-offs will also have the “advantage” of playing their second legs at home. CAF has cleared that confusion and said the order of play will be decided also by ballot. But if you ask me, I will say that is irrelevant  at this crucial stage.

Playing the first leg either at home or away is not likely to constitute much of an advantage or disadvantage. If you win your first leg 6-1 at home, the likelihood that your opponent will recover the five-goal deficit in the return leg is slim, so playing at home first becomes an advantage. But even if you go away first and lose 4-0, you may find that playing the second leg at home will be of no use because the weight of expectation from the home fans will probably overwhelm your players. What’s most important therefore is how many goals you score either home or away, not which leg you play first.

Talking about home and away legs, Nigeria thought she had an advantage when the Green Eagles held Tunisia to a 1-1 draw in the away leg in 1977 only for us to lose the home leg 1-0 which qualified the North Africans for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. In 1981, we lost the first leg 2-0 at home to Algeria and also lost the return 2-1 to crash out 4-1 on aggregate en route to Espana ‘82.

Contrast those disappointments with 1993 when we lost 2-1 away to Cote d’Ivoire and then beat them 4-1 in Lagos in the return leg. Against Algeria on the other hand, we hosted the first leg and won 4-1 before grabbing a 1-1 draw in the return. What made the difference between our 1978/1982 experiences and 1994 wasn’t whether we played home or away first. The difference was in the number of goals we scored.

If Nigeria must take her place at Brazil 2014, Stephen Keshi’s Eagles will have to improve drastically on goalscoring during the play-offs. I have drawn up a special league table of the 10 teams in the play-offs showing their overall statistical performances in their respective qualifying groups. Sadly, Nigeria is joint-bottom with Burkina Faso on the scoring chart with seven goals each from six matches. Even Ethiopia outscored the Super Eagles.

Play-Off Teams League Table  

    Grp   P   W    D    L    GF    GA    GD    Pts 
1. Egypt    G          6      6     0    0    16        7        +9         18
2. Ghana    D    6        5     0    1    18        3        +15       15
3. CIV    C    6        4     2       0     15        5        +10       14
4. Cameroon     I    6        4     1        1    8         3        +5         13
5. Ethiopia    A    6        4     1        1       8        6         +2         13
6. Algeria           H    5        4     0        1       12        4         +8        12
7. Cape Ver.      B     6       4     0        2       11        4        +7         12
8. Senegal        J    6        3     3        0    9        4        +5         12
9. Nigeria    F       6       3     3        0     7         3        +4         12
10. B/Faso    E       6        4    0        2    7        4         +3         12

It’s true that “football is not mathematics,” which means this table may not necessarily dictate how the play-offs will play out. But we must admit that “football is statistics” and the most important statistic of all is the number of goals you score or don’t concede. That, in the final analysis, is what separates the winner from the loser.

...The Defence Remains Solid

WHILE I am challenging Super Eagles strikers to sharpen their scoring boots ahead of the play-offs, all I can say to the defenders is “keep up the good job.” Against Malawi last weekend, the team kept another clean slate, thus making Nigeria joint best defensive team with Ghana and Cameroon with three goals apiece conceded in the qualifying groups.

Stephen Keshi’s experience as a defender during his playing days appears to have impacted positively on Gofrey Oboabona, Elderson Echiejile, Efe Ambrose and the others in defence. On account of their performances so far, it is not likely that Nigeria will concede too many goals during the play-offs either at home or away. If our strikers can complement that defensive strength with regular scoring, it will guarantee our World Cup ticket against any opponent.

The Teams to Avoid

THE Super Eagles have been bragging that they are ready for “any opponent” thrown at them at next week’s draw for the play-offs. I admire their confidence but if I’m to choose an opponent for Nigeria, I will not touch some teams with a long pole: Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroun and Egypt!

Cote d’ Ivoire because they’re still smarting from the AFCON defeat we handed them in South Africa and they will be dangerous avengers; Ghana and Cameroun because they are our perennial rivals who become hyper-motivated the moment they hear the name, “Nigeria.” Apart from the rivalry, the three countries can also match Nigeria  power for power because of our proximity and the obvious similarities in our DNA. They will be too dangerous to contemplate. Thankfully, Nigeria’s seeding means we can’t be drawn against Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana who are also seeded, but Cameroun is a possibility. Kai!

Meanwhile, dangerously unseeded Egypt have been particularly vocal about their preference for Nigeria. Well, someone should tell them to carry their trouble go front. The Pharaohs were the only team to achieve a 100 percent record in their qualifying group, scoring a massive 16 goals in the process. They have surely bounced back from their recent set-backs and they will be a handful for any seeded team. I don’t want to see their faces!

Apart from these four, I will fancy our chances very much against any of the other five teams. Let no one call me a coward. Remember, we are the reigning African champions and we should actually enjoy the privilege of picking our own opponent.

Joking aside, I believe at this stage that all 10 teams have an equal chance of qualifying. When the draws are made, a clearer picture will emerge on the favourites to go to Brazil. I hope the Super Eagles will be one of them. This is wishing Nigeria the luck of the draw.

What Does Gaiya Want?

CHAIRMAN of the House of Representatives committee on sports, Godfrey Ali Gaiya, was very vocal in the media last week ahead of the Super Eagles match in Calabar. Gaiya wanted the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to maintain “status quo” by offering the Super Eagles $10,000 each to beat Malawi rather than the $5,000 that the Segun Adeniyi bonus probe panel had recommended. Gaiya claimed the NFF was jumping the gun in the middle of the World Cup qualifiers, when the panel’s report had not been “adopted” by the minister of sports. He concluded that the NFF’s action was capable of derailing Nigeria’s World Cup dreams.

In my opinion, it was Gaiya whose action could have derailed our World Cup dreams because of the wrong timing of his outburst. When the Eagles camp opened for the Malawi match, not a single player complained about the bonus issue. Everybody was fully focused on the match only for Gaiya to launch his ill-advised media campaign. The question is: did Gaiya want to instigate the players against the NFF? Or, was he playing to the gallery to score cheap populist points? Whatever his objective, thankfully, the players ignored him, faced the task at hand and completed it beautifully.

I hope Gaiya got the message. No matter how good his intentions were, his timing was terribly wrong. Besides, if he truly wanted the players to get so much more, he should simply have told the NFF to bring a supplementary budget for his committee to appropriate more money for the Super Eagles.

The truth, however, is that $5,000 win bonus is adequate for the Eagles. If Gaiya has more money to appropriate, he should channel it to other sports and/or youth development programmes.

Stop Press

AS though the Eagles read this article even before it was published, they demolished Burkina Faso 4-1 in a friendly match in Kaduna on Tuesday. Ideye (two), Emenike and Ameobi got the goals.

Although the Burkinabes presented a weakened side without many of their top players, the scoring spree can only boost the confidence of our strikers ahead of the play-offs.


  1. Oga Mumini,
    Another risky play-off opponent is Cape Verde.
    Given a choice between Egypt and those nifty islanders from Cape Verde, I'll take Egypt.
    Cape Verde, with their disciplined defensive organisation, is exactly the sort of team that will present unending problems to these Eagles.
    Our low goals return is because we do not create enough chances.
    We do not create enough chances because our play in the final third is predictable.
    My opinion to solve part of the Eagles' dilemma in the final third is playing Mikel higher up as an offensive midfielder at the tip of a midfield triangle with Onazi and Ogu/Ogude as sitting midfielders.
    Mikel's skill-set adds greater offensive threat, and reduces the predictability of the Eagles' current offensive game.

  2. Nigerian Football team has finest players in the world -