Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Life Lessons From Mikel and Moses





THE contrasting fortunes currently being experienced by Nigeria's John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses at Chelsea Football Club is of great philosophical significance which both players and the rest of us can learn from.
The key life lessons are:

1.            To moderate our celebrations and not become arrogant when life works smoothly for us because we don't know what the future has in stock.

2.            To not give up when life gets rather difficult because there's always a chance that things would turn around for the better.

As recently as last season, Mikel, in his ninth year at Chelsea was a regular feature in the team's line-up while his compatriot, Moses was virtually lost in the wilderness of successive loan deals to other club sides. This season, however, Mikel has been completely frozen out of the Chelsea squad by the new manager, Antonio Conte, whereas Moses has flourished in a new wing back role under the Italian.

And while Mikel is now contemplating his next career move with China being repeatedly mentioned as a possible destination, Moses, by contrast, is reportedly a target for Lionel Messi's Barcelona! (Don't believe everything that you read).

It's not that Mikel has become a bad player overnight while Moses has suddenly become perfect. Both players have their unique qualities which attracted Chelsea to sign them in the first place. The reason their careers have taken different trajectories at the club is because successive Chelsea managers had different opinions about their capabilities and therefore gave them different opportunities.

Mikel had been fortunate to receive more of those opportunities over the years, but now its Moses' turn.
Last weekend in the English Premier League (EPL), Moses was voted Most Valuable Player (MVP) for Chelsea as they came from behind to beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with the Nigerian scoring the winning goal. It was his second MVP award is as many games, prompting his Brazilian teammate David Luiz to tweet that “Moses is on fire!”

Before that, Conte had actually told an Italian magazine that he was surprised that previous Chelsea managers had not recognized the wide range of Moses' skills (speed, technique and stamina) and used him accordingly.
Obviously, Moses is the man of the moment but himself knowing how much he has suffered to get to where he is now, I hope he will keep his feet firmly on the ground and not lose his head because of the accolades coming his way. Getting to the top is hard, but staying there is even much harder.

As for Mikel, his time at Chelsea is obviously running to a close now, but that does not translate to the end of his playing career. His contract expires at the end of the current season in May 2017, but he can take advantage of the mid-season transfer window in January to get on the move.

Having spent 10 years at Chelsea which he now regards as “home”, Mikel's major challenge is the dislocation that a move from London will likely cause his young family. China is reportedly offering him big money to come over, but how would that enhance his national team career? Besides, does he want his young children to grow up in that society? Is his wife keen about living there? These are questions Mikel has to deal with before reaching a decision.

We have to understand that it's not just about the money or the playing time on offer in China or elsewhere. A lot more, particularly, the comfort and welfare of his family, is involved. I won't be surprised if he's looking to remain in England at another club even for a lesser fee than China will present.

Whatever Mikel decides to do (move in January 2017 or stay in Chelsea till May), I believe strongly that his football career is far from over. At 29 years of age, he can still play at least for another six years at the top level if he takes good care of his strong body which is his greatest asset. And, yes, he can still win trophies, too.

Several years after Nwankwo Kanu left Arsenal and everyone thought his career at the top was effectively over, he was seen lifting the English FA Cup for unfacied Portsmouth at Wembley Stadium.



Just as Moses has found a new lease of life under Conte at Chelsea, Mikel also can still flourish under another coach who will appreciate and effectively deploy his qualities. The lesson to be drawn by all of us from the experiences of Mikel and Moses at Chelsea is that in football, as in life, no condition is permanent.
Moses is on fire at the moment, but Mikel is not finished yet either.



Hamilton:  Fiercely  Conceited  or  Fiercely  Competitive?

THE top headline news in the sports world last weekend was the conclusion of the 2016 Formula One (F1) season and the emergence of Germany's Nico Rosberg as the new world champion of car racing.
Last week in this column, I celebrated British brothers Andy and Jamie Murray and their mother Judy for what they achieved by finishing as world number ones simultaneously in the men's singles and men's doubles of the 2016 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour.

This week, yet another Brit, Lewis Hamilton is up for mention for his involvement in how the F1 season was concluded.

I am an avid follower of the sport and I have my views on Hamilton's behavior. But I will only describe the episode for my readers majority of whom I suspect are NOT keen followers of F1 racing, then leave you to draw your own conclusions on the Hamilton and Rosberg rivalry.

Heading into last weekend's final Grand Prix of the season in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg (367 points) held a 12-point lead over his Mercedez Benz teammate and rival Hamilton (355 points). With a race win fetching 25 points, second place 18 points and third place 15 points, a third place finish was going to be enough for Rosberg to win the driver's championship as it would take him to 382 points (367+15) whereas the maximum reachable for Lewis even he won the race was 380 points (355+25).

Lewis promptly won the qualifying session and secured pole position while Rosberg sat next to him on the grid. Having dominated for most of the season, the two Mercedez Benz cars were expected to complete a straight-forward 1-2 finish. The problem with that for 2015 champion Hamilton was that he would win the race but lose his title to Rosberg. So, he decided to do “something” about it.

With 10 laps to go in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton decided to cut down his pace and, back up Rosberg in the hope that the chasing Red Bull and Ferrari cars would catch up with Rosberg and push him down into fourth place! If that happened, Hamilton would retain his title if he won the race.

The Mercedez Benz team bosses saw that Hamilton wanted to get Rosberg into trouble and directed Hamilton to speed up, but Hamilton refused. To his disappointment, however, none of the chasing Red Bulls and Ferraris overtook Rosberg who finished the race in second place (18 points) for an overall 385 points. Hamilton won the race (25 points) but his season's tally came to 380 points.

The debate in Formula One circles has been on what Mercedez Benz should do to Hamilton for defying team orders. Some fans feel that Hamilton was arrogant, selfish and conceited and should be punished for trying to back Rosberg into trouble, and for defying team orders. Others feel, however, that Hamilton is a fierce competitor who only attempted, legally, to retain his driver's championship title and should not be punished for doing so.

Remarkably, the Mercedez Benz team boss, Toto Wolf, couldn't make a categorical statement when journalists interviewed him immediately after the race. He was livid that Hamilton defied team orders, but he couldn't say whether he would be punished because the circumstances of the disobedience was unprecedented. The F1 fraternity was still awaiting the Mercedez Benz decision at the time of writing this.

Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg took the whole episode calmly as he has done all season in the face of several confrontations with Hamilton. Having won his first ever title (his father, Keke, was previously champion in 1982), Nico simply concentrated on celebrating his historic victory, leaving Hamilton (winner of three previous titles in 2008, 2014, 2015) to sulk and sulk.

But with the relationship between both drivers reaching boiling point and the lowest depths on account of the latest controversy in Abu Dhabi, it remains to be seen whether they can be kept together in the Mercedez Benz garage next season.

FOOTNOTE

* Number of F1 teams in 2016: 11 (2 drivers each)
*             Number of Grand Prix races in 2016: 21
* Race winners: Lewis Hamilton (10), Nico Rosberg (9) both for Mercedez Benz team. Daniel Ricciardo (1), Sebastian Vettel (1) both for Red Bull Racing team.
*             Points System: 1st (25points); 2nd (28points); 3rd (15points); 4th (12points); 5th (10points); 6th (8points); 7th (6points); 8th (4points); 9th (2points) 10th (1point). Others: 0point.
*             Driver's Championship Winner: Nico Rosberg (Germany) 385 points.
* Constructor's Championship winner (Consolidation of points scored by the two drivers in each team): Mercedez Benz with 765 points.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Murrays’ Sweet Mother




“SWEET MOTHER, I no go forget you, for the suffer wey you suffer for me, hey.”
 – Prince Nico Mbarga, Nigerian/Cameroonian singer.

WHEN Nico Mbarga released his “Sweet Mother” song in 1976, he didn’t realize that it would become such a hit. After suffering several rejections by the top record labels such as EMI, Decca Records and Philips Records, Mbarga turned to Rogers All Stars, a local recording company based in Onitsha who finally agreed to release the album.

According to Wikipedia, “Sweet Mother” went on to become one of the most popular hits in Africa, selling over 13 million copies. Sometimes called Africa’s anthem, the song was voted Africa’s favourite song by BBC readers and listeners in 2004, coming before Brenda Fassie’s “Mario” and Mariam Makeba’s version of “Malaika.” (Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/sweet mother. Retrieved, 22 November, 2016).
World number one men’s singles tennis player Andy Murray and his brother Jamie should be singing “Sweet Mother” to their mum Judy today as the brothers reach the pinnacle of their sport. It was Judy, herself a former tennis player, who introduced her kids to tennis, with Andy going on to grab his first newspaper headlines at the age of six when he beat older boys at a competition for 12-year-olds and under.


Last weekend at the O2 Arena in London, Andy grabbed the biggest headlines of his career when he emerged as world champion and also cemented his place as world number one, following a straight sets (6-3; 6-4) victory over former number one Novak Djokovic at the ATP World Tour Finals. It is the first time in his career that Andy will finish the year as world number one.

Just a few weeks before that, Andy’s older brother, Jamie had also secured the 2016 number one world ranking in the men’s doubles with his playing partner, Bruno Soares. The brothers thus became the first in tennis history to achieve the feat.

The global sports media has been awash with tributes particularly to Andy Murray for his resilience over the years which has finally paid off. Although he has been a member of the “Big 4 of Tennis” which also included Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic during the last decade, Andy has been the least successful of the quartet, boasting only three Grand Slams compared to Federer’s 17, Nadal’s 14 and Djokovic’s 11. Also, the other three had monopolized the number one ranking amongst themselves in all that period until a few weeks ago when Andy broke through. Had he lost last weekend’s ATP Final to Djokovic, Andy would have been immediately overthrown again as number one. But he surprised everyone by claiming a relatively straight forward win over an adversary who had been his nemesis.

The world, particularly the British, is right to celebrate Andy’s remarkable achievement. But I decided to celebrate Andy’s mum even more because, she has not only given the world a world champion, but two!
The sporting world is filled with stories of how visionary fathers influenced the career of many great sports men and women. Since we are talking tennis, the examples that come readily to mind are those of the William Sisters, Venus and Serena whose father Richard single-handedly produced; Maria Sharapova whose Russian father Yuri migrated to the United States to work as a servant so he could pay his daughter’s fees at a tennis academy; and the retired Andre Agassi, whose Iranian-born dad, Emmanuel “Mike” Agassi, bought his first tennis racket before he was even born! Incredible stories, but true.

Judy Murray belongs in this group of incredible parents who sacrificed a lot and diligently shaped the lives and sporting careers of their children. There are many others like them but obviously, it is those who succeed in taking their wards to the very top who get recognized the most. For producing not one, but two world champions in such a competitive and demanding sport such as tennis, Judy Murray is a super mom. She is a “sweet mother” in the words of Prince Nico Mbarga. Nigerian mothers can take a cue from Judy.



Florence Omagbemi A Super Woman?
IT IS IRONIC that even while I am recalling the tribute to motherhood by Cameroonian-Nigerian singer, Nico Mbarga, Nigeria’s Super Falcons are fighting to regain their African Women Championships (AWC) crown in neighbouring Cameroun. And the coach bidding to make history with the girls is a former Super Falcon herself, Florence Omagbemi.

I have known Omagbemi since she became the first captain of Nigeria’s first women’s football team in 1991. I remember spending a whole day with them in camp at the Obasanjo Farms in Ota, Ogun State as they prepared for the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in Sweden. Back then, she was a tiny-looking, antelope-legged girl (no pun intended) with a football brain that was far ahead of her peers in a sport (women’s football) that was still a novelty in the country. It was quite easy for the team’s first coaches, Paul Hamilton and Niyi Akande, to make Omagbemi captain because she was simply the most intelligent player on the pitch.
Since then, Florence’s career has gone full circle. She has captained Nigeria to several African women’s titles, several Women’s World Cups and Olympic football tournaments. She turned professional in America, became a coach, got appointed as a FIFA ambassador and now, she’s the coach of the national team. What a story.

Last weekend, Omagbemi got her team to a flying start at the AWC by beating Mali 6-0 with current star of the team, Asisat Oshoala, scoring four goals. Their next group game against Ghana (on Wednesday, 23 November) promises to be more competitive as the Ghanaians are, historically, Nigeria’s biggest rivals on the content.
I hope the Falcons will scale the Ghana hurdle and go on to win the trophy in Cameroun. That would cement Omagbemi’s legacy as an icon of women’s football and make her the first woman to win the AWC both as a captain and a coach.

Unfortunately, the current Falcons have not been receiving adequate support from a cash-strapped Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). In fact, I felt scandalized when the story broke that the NFF gave players who didn’t make the team to Cameroun only N10,000 each to return home without any further compensation for the time spent in camp. Meanwhile, those who made the team are yet to receive any allowances and/or bonuses either.
This raises the question: Must Nigeria participate in all competitions even when we can’t afford to in this recession? The seemingly apparent answer would be ‘no’, but for the players, I guess it would be a ‘yes’. I’m sure that Omagbemi would be telling them to ignore the lack of money and focus on making a name for themselves which could open doors of career opportunities for them abroad. Her admonition would resonate with them because she would simply add: “Look at me; see how far I have come.”

So, money or no money, I expect the Falcons to go for the trophy in Cameroun and not settle for anything less. But it will help a great deal if the NFF can also motivate them with some little change in the pocket. As they say in Warri, Omagbemi’s birthplace, “at all, at all, na im bad.”
I say good luck to the Super Falcons.



Man United On The Brink
AT THE START of the current English Premier League season, I predicted that by week 10, any team not within a nine-point reach of the leaders should “forget about winning the title.” When I checked the league table at the conclusion of Week 10 (Sunday, 29 October, 2016), I wrote on Twitter that defending champions Leicester had been “dethroned” while Man United were “just in it.”

Following last weekend’s 1-1 home draw against Arsenal, I’m afraid United now stand on the brink of elimination from the title race as their 19 points leaves them exactly nine points adrift of leaders Chelsea on 28 points. Any further slip and Jose Mourinho can kiss goodbye to the title in his first season at Old Trafford.
I’m sticking to my pre-season benchmark that no team will be able to recover a 10-point deficit in what promises to be the tightest EPL title race ever. Do you agree?




FEEDBACK
·         Dear sir, you started it, you can’t change the tune, we can’t back down now, we are the landlord, others must surrender the keys. Zambia+Cameroon+Algeria = 4, Nigeria = 6! The clear leader would not surrender. All other teams in our group will be on break and would have to wait till August. Even those in AFCON won’t be there beyond February. We will play friendly games intermittently between May and June, European leagues will be on break, if utilize, Eagles can train together for a whole two weeks. The most Eagles have together since Rohr is four days! We should be in Russia not by accident but by design and divine not even by mathematics/permutation. Let’s be positive for once. – J D. Korode, Ijagbo, Kwara State.

·         Uncle Mumini, I am one of those who also went on Sabatical when Soccertalk embarked on such. Thank God that we are back. I want to comment on the so many phobias for White jersey and the “supposed” bad luck that follows it. Records show that we have success and failure on both green and white jerseys respectively. On the three occasions we won the AFCON Cup, one was won on white jersey, and on the four occasions we lost at the final matches, it was two apiece. We also lost to Algeria at Lagos in 1981, putting on the ‘lucky’ green jersey. I’m quite sure of that. – Nationale, Ojo, Alaba.

·         Sir, you might have forgotten you gave me a copy of that magazine, in that year when I came on a courtesy visit then as a young undergraduate. I will later come back a year later  for an interview alongside dare Esan, Femi Fasetire, Henry Okodua, Pius (now with Punch) and so other. The interview was conducted by you and Morakiyo Abodunrin we are told to pick on one Nigerian midfielder for our written interview. I still have the copy. – Ajibade Alabi, Ayobo, Lagos.

·         Great victory over Algeria. The hard work still ahead. We will surely qualify with the same seal, effort and determination as shown in past matches. – Azudiaby, Ilorin.

·         Mr. Soccertalk, please what has become of former Super Eagles rightful back Efe Ambrose of Celtic? – Eric Onwuzuruike.

·         Alhaji Mumini Alao, I quite agreed with you about our level of concentration in that match against Algeria especially during the middle of second half. I thank God for those great changes, Ndidi Wilfred and Ahmed Musa. – Kingsley.

·         Mumini, you are absolutely correct, Imeela and Unu Agbaliala is just the same. Please in your next encounter with Victor Moses, I would like to know his tribe. – Chikezie Jude.

·         Dear Alhaji Mumini, thank you so much sir for giving a host of people (including myself) great weeks to look forward to with your soccertalk. Having said this, your Igbo lesson continues today from where it was last taught you. Ndi IfeanyiUbah (refers to a group of people), Unu Emela (plural verb) is more appropriate than Emeela (singular verb). Eku ise sir. – CID, Magodo, Lagos.

·         Despite their winning stride over World Cup qualifier tournament, the Eagles should keep going to the drawing board until the last match that will take them to Russia 2018. – Mrs. Ijeoma Nnorom.

·         Mr. Alao, thanks for all your contribution in making sure Nigeria goes to Russia 2018. You recommended Etuobe to the coach, please, recommend two players at the right and left full back. Echiejile and Omeruo are not good enough, then give us enough load-down of South American qualifiers. Thank you. – 9893063****

·         Nigeria will qualify for the 2018 World Cup from her group no matter the odds that might confront them during the qualification period. D.C Odoemena, Lagos.

·         Congratulations Super Eagles. Come rain, come sun, the Nigerian flag will fly in 2018 World Cup in Russia. Period! – UBA Sptephen Igwe, Badagry.

·         Mumini, infact you are a good octopus. Rarely your prediction would not come to pass. What a wonderful prophecy. Keep it up. Up green white green. – Olapade Abbey, Lagos.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Alhamdulillah, Eagles Stay On Course





I HAVE OBSERVED that Soccertalk readers seem to be loving the historical theme in my analysis of Nigeria’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign and I have decided to stick to it. For older readers, obviously it brings lots of nostalgia and for younger readers, it brings knowledge and insight. So, why change a winning theme?
The headline above is a continuation of that theme. “Alhamdulillah (Thanks to God in Arabic), Super Eagles on Course” is a throwback to a similar headline that I wrote for Complete Football magazine in 1993 after the Super Eagles had annihilated Algeria 4-1 in a USA ’94 World Cup qualifier played at the National Stadium, Lagos. On that occasion, the headline had been “Allahu Akbar (God is Great in Arabic) Super Eagles Back on Course.”

That headline had been inspired by a photograph of Austin Jay-Jay Okocha celebrating his wonderful free kick goal against Algeria (which tied the match 1-1) by pointing his index finger towards the heavens. That is a gesture used by Muslims to signify the oneness and greatness of God and I was pleasantly surprised when my boss, Dr. Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase and my colleague, Samm Audu, both Christians, were embraced the creativity behind the headline and fully endorsed its use on the cover of Complete Football magazine! In fact, it was Samm’s idea to also add the Arabic lettering of “Allahu Akbar” which I did.

Indeed, when the magazine hit the newsstands, it sold out. We didn’t receive any complaints from any non-muslims about our choice of language. Everybody was just excited that the Eagles were “Back On Course” for USA ’94 after losing their previous game 2-1 to Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan. Football, indeed, is a big unifier in Nigeria. The Eagles would go on to qualify for USA ’94 by holding Algeria to a 1-1 draw away in their last game of the qualifying series.

Nigerians expect a similar outcome when the race for Russia 2018 is concluded in 2017. The Eagles last game in this series again will be away to Algeria but my expectation is that the World Cup ticket will already be in our pocket before that game is played.

Last Saturday at the magnificent Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, the Eagles fulfilled my audacious prediction in this column by beating highly-rated Algeria and staying “On Course” for the ticket to Russia. Following the opening day 2-1 victory away to Zambia, Nigeria now have the maximum six points and are the favourites now to qualify from the African group “B”.



Considering that football is so unpredictable, quite a number of people have asked what gave me the confidence to stick my neck out so foolishly for the Eagles in such a high profile match against such an accomplished opposition. I will say the truth: The analytical reasoning behind my prediction was very little. For the most part, it was a blind faith in God that made me stick my neck out! And that is why my headline today is one of gratitude to the Supreme Being. Alhamdulillah Robil Aalamen (Thanks to God, the Lord of the Worlds).

However, “the elements,” as Chief Segun Odegbami loves to describe nature and the spiritual realm, help only those who are prepared. Next to my faith in God, I also had faith that Eagles coach Gernot Rohr would make the right calls on team selection and tactics and I had faith in the talent of our players. Last week, I listed four requirements for Nigeria’s victory: total concentration, tactical discipline, team work and unshakable determination to win. Let’s analyze how Rohr and his boys fared on those indices against Algeria…

Tactics: Compared with his starting line-up in the last game against Zambia, there weren’t many surprises in Gernot Rohr’s team selection against Algeria. That means the core of a new Super Eagles is beginning to emerge.



Goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi’s selection was forced by Carl Ikeme’s absence through injury; Leon Balogun and Victor Moses’ return to the starting line-up were expected; and the introduction of Oghenekaro Etebo in midfield was advocated by this column so there were no surprises there. What Rohr did differently was, rather than play Etebo as an attacking midfielder, he deployed him in a defensive role alongside Ogenyi Onazi and pushed captain Mikel Obi forward into the attacking midfielder role. That little tweak turned out to be very significant because Etebo did a marvelous job of breaking down the Algerian play while Mikel assisted one goal and scored another from his advanced position.

There was also a little surprise in the front line where Rohr fielded Kelechi Iheanacho as the central striker with Moses and Alex Iwobi on the flanks. I had expected either Odion Ighalo or Brown Ideye to start as the main striker supported by Moses and Iheanacho. By starting Iheanacho and Iwobi together, Rohr clearly went for skill and flair in attack rather than the power that Ighalo or Ideye would have provided. The Eagles got away with it because of Algeria’s style of play which is more technical than physical. Against a physical side like Cameroun, I’m not sure how effective the delicate Iheanacho/Iwobi partnership will be. But there will be enough time for a further test of that.

Moses, meanwhile, provided the skill, power and pace to decimate the Algerian defence. His two goals were ample evidence of his effectiveness. Tactically and technically, I would say that the match suited Moses’ style perfectly. It was set up for him to shine.



Finally, Rohr got his substitutions spot on. With the score at 2-1 and Algeria pushing for an equalizer, bringing Wilfred Ndidi into midfield in place of the tiring Mikel halted the Algerian advance, while a fresh Ahmed Musa was just too fast for the tired legs in the Algerian defence. It was no surprise that Musa’s speed created the third goal for Moses and there could have been more as the Eagles switched fully into counter-attacking mode.
Overall, it was a good tactical performance by Rohr, but I think playing Etebo in defensive midfield was the masterstroke. I will score the Eagles eight from 10 marks for tactics.



Team Work: There has been great improvement in Nigeria’s team play since Rohr took over and it showed again against Algeria. Before the match, there was trepidation over goalkeeper Carl Ikeme’s absence because he had been the Eagles’ savior against Zambia and everybody was fearful about Daniel Akpeyi’s capabilities. It turned out that Akpeyi didn’t need to perform any heroics against Algeria because, for most of the game he was well protected by his defence line. Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong showed great understanding in central defence while full backs Elderson Echiejile and Kenneth Omeruo did a better job than the Zambia game. The only goal scored by Algeria could have beaten any goalkeeper.

In defensive midfield, Etebo’s outstanding performance also brought out the best in Onazi who didn’t have to over-work himself this time around like it often happened when he was paired in that role with Mikel. Up front, the frequent interchange of positions by Iheanacho, Iwobi and Moses signaled great cohesion among the players and that can only benefit the team. I will score the Eagles another eight from 10 marks for team work.

Concentration: This, in my opinion, was Nigeria’s weak point against Algeria. At 1-0 up, the Eagles nearly conceded a quick equalizer when they surrendered possession in midfield and Algeria counter-attacked swiftly. It was only by divine favour that the Algerian striker lifted the ball over the bar with Akpeyi already beaten.
In the second half, Algeria finally scored with a 30-yard shot when the Nigeria defence gave the scorer too much time and space to shot. I didn’t want to be too hard on the Eagles for conceding that goal because, we all knew before the game that Algeria were a quality side with quality strikers capable of scoring fantastic goals. But a bit more concentration by the Eagles would have averted the goal.

That said, the Eagles level of concentration was actually better in comparative terms because this has been Nigeria’s archilles heel in international football. North African and European opponents are always on the look-out for those slips in concentration because of their proven belief that black African players, though skillful and strong, lacked the mental strength and professional discipline to concentrate for the full 90 minutes of a football game without making costly blunders. Therefore, their strategy usually is to wait patiently, knowing that the average black African defender would lose focus at some point and surrender possession carelessly in a dangerous area. 
North African clubsides, in particular, have seized on this weakness to punish Nigerian clubsides in African competitions for decades and that is why I expressed concern some weeks back about fielding home-based Nigerian league players in the Eagles defence for our World Cup qualifiers. I have lots of respect for our league players because of the odds that they have deal with. But they have not found a solution to their habitual slips in concentration and generally poor tactical discipline. These failings will continue to deny many of them of opportunities in the Super Eagles even under Gernot Rohr. 



I score the Eagles six from 10 marks for concentration against Algeria. I hope Rohr can infuse his German discipline into our defence ahead of the remaining World Cup qualifiers. The Eagles will become impenetrable and nearly unbeatable like the German national team. 

Determination: I will score the Eagles 10 from 10 marks for determination against Algeria. Last week, I predicted that “Super Eagles Will Win” only if the players wanted it as much as I did. From their performance, it was clear that they wanted the win so badly and they were ready to work for it. The players’ determination made up for their short-comings in other areas. And with a vociferous home support provided by the fans at the Nest of Champions stadium cheering them on, the Algerians stood no chance.
I conclude by thanking God again for crowning the Eagles efforts with success. Two games, six maximum points and we are firmly on course for the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals.



Will Nigeria Land in Russia?
• AFTER the final whistle on Saturday, I received a message on Twitter pleading with me to predict that Nigeria “WILL” qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia 2018. The sender believed that if I made that prediction now, it will come to pass. 

It is premature to make a call on who will win our group ticket. What is clear for now is that the Eagles have replaced Algeria as group favourites and that comes with its own additional pressure. How Nigeria copes with that pressure will be decisive.
The Eagles have momentum on their side now and they would benefitted from it had their next game against Cameroun been coming up soon enough. But that match will not be played until August 2017 which is a massive nine months away.

A lot can happen to change the dynamics of the group before then. Algeria and/or Cameroun could become a completely different prospect if they discover something special while preparing and participating in the 2017 AFCON which Nigeria, unfortunately, will miss. I remember an interview given by the Cameroun coach to the 2000 AFCON which they won in Lagos. He confessed that they “stumbled” on the 3-5-2 formation that won them the trophy by accident while trying out different systems in a closed camp.
Nigeria cannot benefit from the team-bonding, tactical adventures and greater understanding that long campings would engender in the teams going for AFCON 2017. But we will be able to spy on our opponents. Rohr must take full advantage of that.

At the start of the World Cup qualifiers, I set a target of nine points from the first three games and 13 points overall for the Eagles to get to Russia. If they can achieve the first target by beating Cameroun in our next home game, the path to the second target will become clearer.
Until then, no further predictions from me!

FEEDBACK
Quite a number of readers shared my optimism for the Eagles victory over Algeria and many also had their own historical stories to tell. Most of these letters were written before the game…

• Alhaji Alao, even after reading your effort to deflect full responsibility for your declaration that “Super Eagles Will Win” against Algeria, I still wonder why you are sticking out your neck. I like your boldness though. Your stand on this game will embolden me to watch it live as I had planned not to (I love my heart) before I read your piece. – Howard Odigie, Lagos.
• How time flies Mumini. The 1994 World Cup qualifier between Nigeria and Algeria in Lagos seems like it was played yesterday. Jay-Jay Okocha in that match was mesmerizing and magical. To an Algerian defender sitting on the bench, the ball was tied at Okocha’s leg. Victor Moses will play that role for us on Saturday. Conversely, however, my crystal ball is showing a very tight game. But Nigeria eventually triumphs courtesy of Victor Moses ingenuity. Two weeks ago, my name was inadvertently spelt Omolaja instead of Omojola. Please take note – Omojola Igbekele, Ikorodu.
• I read your article on Super Eagles and Algeria previous engagements and the results which is in Nigeria’s favour. I really appreciate your in-depth knowledge of African Soccer History and accurate match results. By the grace of God we shall win this encounter by two goals. Just advise our coach to beef up the defence and substitute tired players. – Tunde Johnson.
• THE SONG “We Will Win”, let’s join the chorus. Let’s shout it to the high heavens. We’ve got the colour, we’ve got the strength, will, determination and focus. We’ve got the pace, skill, brain, manager and fan. We are ready. We can fly, we will soar, and we will win. We are the Nigerian Super Eagles!!! 
Yes, Amen, I concur! Super Eagles will win! Not just because you want it, we all want it. We have the talent to win it and we are the host. I consider winning in Uyo as a ticket to Russia. – J.D Korode, Ijagbo, Kwara State.
• Dear Alhaji, the Nigeria/Algeria match of 12th November will be their 19th confrontation because they both met at the 1978 AAG soccer final in Algiers on the 28/7/78 and Algeria won by a lone goal. Please note that it was Toyin Ayinla’s own-goal that settled the 1986 FA Final.  
– Oshinowo Funso, Ibadan.
*Thank you for your observation.
• Sir, I am a big supporter of the Super Eagles. I was at the National Stadium Surulere in 1981 when Nigeria lost 0-2 to Algeria in a 1982 World Cup qualifier. I remember that our team wore white jerseys instead of our favourite green and I told my friend that Nigeria may lose the match and they did. This Saturday, history must not repeat itself. – Emmanuel Okonkwo , LAGBUS, Lagos.
• Good morning, the analyst. I want to agree with you that Nigeria will beat Algeria because I see a lot of the new, young players and the older ones who want to make a name and play in the World Cup. Let’s win and qualify for Russia, Timaya sang. I concur with you, more grease to your elbow. 
– 0809848****
• I watched some of these Algeria players and I believe that, with right mental and psychological attitude, Eagles will win. – Azudiaby, Ilorin.
• Dear Mumini, I share your optimism and confidence that Super Eagles will win the game. No matter who Algeria parade, our boys will make us proud. – 0815731**** 
• You are not alone. I share your confidence and I believe we will overcome on Saturday by the Grace of God. #SOAR EAGLES. – Peter O. Savage, Lawanson, Lagos.
• Asww Alhaji, you predicted that Super Eagles will win and we did win on Saturday. May Allah continue with to guide you sir. Thank you for supporting Nigeria.
– 0805191****
• Since Cameroun and Zambia played out a draw, Nigeria’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup is brighter with the win against Algeria. Eagles should keep their game going. I believe our qualification for the World Cup will not require any calculation. – Gordon Chika Nnorom.
• Greetings sir. Trust you and dear ones are well. Great analysis as always. Good ibo language, tiny flaws. 100% for the attempt. Best wishes of more success to you and CCL team. – Igbogbahaka.
• Sir, the statement “Ndi IfeanyiUba, Imeela” (you have done well) is incorrect; it should be “Ndi IfeanyiUba, unu agbaliala”. Thanks. – Emeka LSDPC Estate, Isolo.
*I’m told that both statements mean the same. Daalu! (Thank you).

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

SUPER EAGLES WILL WIN!



NIGERIA's Super Eagles will beat the Desert Warriors of Algeria when both teams meet in Saturday's crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier in Uyo. I don't know what the score line will be, but Nigeria will win!

I am sure that opening statement is what 170 million Nigerian soccer fans want to hear, but which very few, if any, are willing to stick their necks out for. Well, I have stuck my neck out for the Super Eagles here and now. I am willing to take the risk of having my neck metaphorically chopped off. That is how desperate I am that the Eagles should come out victorious.

Naturally, the question on the reader's mind should be what gives me the confidence to make such an audacious prediction? Did God speak to me as some are wont to claim or did I see a vision in a dream? Did I visit a herbalist or did Octopus Paul resurrect in a crystal ball in my garden? Answer: None of the above.

So, how come I am making such a “reckless” prediction, knowing full well that our opponents Algeria are the number one ranked country in Africa at the moment; that they were Africa's best team at the last World Cup in Brazil 2014; that they currently parade some of the best African players in some of the top leagues in Europe; that the majority of their team are French-born players who have benefited from France's youth academy system to horn their skills and tactical discipline; that Algeria have always been a handful for the Eagles even at the best of times for Nigeria; that they are coming to Uyo very hungry and very angry having dropped points at home to Cameroun in their first 2018 World Cup qualifier and are desperate to quickly make up lost ground?



On the flip side, how come I am saying the Eagles WILL win when Nigeria's Man of the Match in the win over Zambia in our first game, goalkeeper Carl Ikeme will be missing against Algeria; when our captain John Mikel Obi has been inactive at Chelsea; when our coach Gernot Rohr is only now trying out new players to plug our leaky defence; when we are unsure which type of  Ahmed Musa will turn up-the clinical one or the poor ball crosser; when we are not sure how Uyo fans will react if the Algerians out-play our Super Eagles; when we are uncertain whether the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) will have the player's camp allowances and bonuses ready!
In the face of all the Algerian strengths and all of Nigeria's shortcomings, how come I am predicting that Super Eagles will win? Simply answer: Because I WANT it and I believe the Eagles have the talent to do it. That is why Nigeria will win!



Whether I will get my wish – and I believe, the wish of all Nigerians – does not depend directly on me, however. Obviously, it depends on the Super Eagles themselves. It depends on Rohr, on goalkeepers Dan Akpeyi or Ikechukwu Ezenwa; on defenders Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong; on midfielders Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi, Victor Moses; Uche Agbo, Oghenekaro Etebo, et al; on the strikers Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, et al. If the Eagles WANT to win as badly as I want it, I repeat, they will win!
It won't be the first time that Nigeria will be pulling off a victory by sheer force of will. History is replete with occasions when the Eagles found themselves facing formidable foes but came out triumphant. I will only recall a few instances to inspire the present team. Incidentally, one of those occasions was against our current foes Algeria.

1993: Nigeria 4, Algeria 1

The game was a World Cup qualifier for USA '94. In a three-team round robin series, the Eagles had lost her first game 2-1 to Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan, so they were under pressure to win their next game against Algeria in Lagos. Algeria scored first to heighten the pressure but because the Eagles wanted to win so badly, they fought back to win 4-1.

I saw the highlights of that game on YouTube again last week. Super Eagles media officer Toyin Ibitoye may want to share the video with the players just to motivate them. The free-kick equalizer by Austin Okocha and the shot from a tight corner by Late Rashidi Yekini for 3-1 were some of the best goals ever scored at the National Stadium in Lagos. If Moses and Iheanacho are ready to emulate Okocha and Yekini at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium on November 12, Nigeria will win.

Year 2000: Nigeria 2, South Africa 0

Nigeria faced South Africa in the semi-final of the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana. The Eagles were under pressure having just managed to scrap a 1-0 win over Morocco which caused Lagos fans to hold them hostage. But against Bafana Bafana, coach Jo Bonfrere moved pacy right winger Tijani Babangida to the left side of the Eagles attack and the player responded by scoring two quick first half goals to seal the win.
It is a common tactic nowadays for right footed players to play from the left wing and vice versa (e.g Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Neymar, Arjen Robben, et al). But it was still a novelty when Bonfrere deployed it back then. Before the South Africans adjusted to the strategy, Nigeria had won the game. If Gernot Rohr can unfold a tactical master plan like Bonfrere in Uyo on November 12, Nigeria will win.

2001: Sudan 0, Nigeria 4

Nigeria was in danger of elimination from the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. Bonfrere had been sacked and the late Shaibu Amodu and Stephen Keshi had taken over as coach and assistant coach. Sudan had secured a draw in the first leg in Lagos and were primed to finish Nigeria off in the return leg in Omdurman. Against all the odds, (harsh weather, bad pitch and a hostile crowd), the Eagles won comprehensively, recording Nigeria's best away win (4-0) in World Cup qualifying history with Yakubu Aiyegbeni scoring two of the goals. Keshi told me later how they did it: “The players wanted it badly,” he said. If the powerful Etebo explodes like the stocky Aiyegbeni in Uyo on November 12, Nigeria will win.

2013: Nigeria 2, Cote d'Ivoire 1

This is my most recent example. Nigeria were the under-dogs against a star-studded Ivorian side in the quarter final of the 2013 AFCON in South Africa. No one gave the Eagles a chance, not even Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) officials. But Keshi and his troops won the game 2-1 and went on to clinch the AFCON trophy.
Keshi again told me how they did it: “The boys were hungry. They wanted it more than the Ivorians.”
Luckily, many of the players that took part in the 2013 AFCON triumph are still in the Eagles squad that will face Algeria in Uyo on Saturday. Mikel, Onazi, Moses, Elderson Echiejile and Brown Ideye all played pivotal roles in South Africa. A repeat performance of total concentration, tactical discipline, team work and unshakeable determination to win will be enough to give Nigeria victory. Yes, Nigeria will win!

Recent History Favours Eagles

NIGERIA and Algeria have played each other 18 times at international level with seven wins apiece and four draws. However, Nigeria has the edge on the goals count with 24 against Algeria's 21.
Perhaps the most significant statistic from the Nigerian perspective is the recent clashes between the two African rivals. The last time Algeria defeated Nigeria was in the final of the 1990 AFCON in Algiers. Since then, Nigeria has won five of the last six matches and drawn the other. In fact, the Eagles have won the last four games on the trot. That will be extended to five straight games on Saturday insha Allah!




IfeanyiUbah Bu Ndi Nmeri!
LESS than two months after I celebrated Enugu Rangers' League title win here in this column with some of the Igbo language that I picked up during my National Youth Service year in the old Anambra State, I'm back again to expand my Eastern Nigeria vocabulary.

Last weekend at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, FC IfeanyiUbah of Nnewi, Anambra State, completed a fairy tale run by winning the 2016 Federation Cup in only the second year of their existence. If you consider the fact that the current Enugu and Anambra States together belonged to the old Anambra State where I served, you will understand why I feel obliged to also congratulate FC IfeanyiUbah in “our” local dialect: “Ndi IfeanyiUbah, Imeela” (You have done well). Both the League and Cup titles now rest in the two sister states, East of the Niger.
IfeanyiUbah won the Cup following a goalless 90 minutes and a 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Nasarawa United. I had planned to be at the stadium but a force majeure kept me away. Reports say the match wasn't a spectacle but 
I'm sure the winner's proprietor, Dr. Patrick Ifeanyi Ubah is simply joyous with the win.
Even as I was writing this, our website completesportsnigeria.com editor Nnamdi Ezekute walked into my office to play for me the FC IfeanyiUbah club anthem. Titled “Ndi Nmeri” (The Champions), the song is meant to inspire the players and supporters to be the best they can be.

Dr. Ubah has been on a revolution to make the club a model in Nigeria. He is constructing a sports and recreation complex in Onitsha and has entered into a partnership with West Ham United Football Club of England to further advance his dreams.

I hope the club's success in the Federation Cup will encourage Ubah to do more, starting with the CAF Confederation Cup where FC IfeanyiUbah will represent Nigeria next year. And I hope that Ubah does not suffer the kind of frustration that forced rich club proprietors such as the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola (Abiola Babes) and Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu (Iwuanyanwu Nationale) to quit Nigerian football unceremoniously.
As for Nasarawa United, I say to them, better luck next time.