Reviewing the lusterless performance by Super Eagles in a pre-AFCON 2019 friendly with Warriors of Zimbabwe at Asaba on June 8, which ended goalless, former international Bolaji Douglas told TheCable that it was nothing to worry about, although he also admitted that the Eagles had played without a purpose.
“Every one knows that the Super Eagles didn’t do well in pre-tournament games in recent times,” the ex-defender said, apparently making reference to the team’s pre-Russia2018 World Cup games which the side faltering inexplicably.
“Don’t forget that the players haven’t been together for a while and only regrouped about five days to the game against Zimbabwe,” he said.
“I want to believe that the days leading to the AFCON finals proper would see the team blend and ready to compete. The quality is there, anyway, as well as the rich blend of youth and experience. I don’t see any reason to fret as I think the team would be up for it.”
By the time the Eagles filed out against Lions of Senegal in their last tune-up game in Ismailia, Egypt on June 16, however, they did not look like a side ready to show that missing out of two consecutive finals since winning the trophy in South Africa in 2013 would count for something rewarding. Playing out of sort, even with their full complement of squad, the Nigerians conceded a 20th minute goal off a mix-up in the defence. For the remaining 70 minutes, they failed to achieve purpose going forward – Coach Gernot Rohr deploying 17 players in the quest to level score – but still failed to avert the 1-0 defeat.
The Ismailia game exposed what looked like a goalkeeping crisis in the Eagles’ squad. Rohr had benched his favourite choice for number one, Greece-based Francis Uzoho, in the game against Zimbabwe, preferring the mistake-prone South Africa-based deputy Daniel Akpehi. Close watchers of the Eagles had reasoned that the Franco-German gaffer merely offered Akpehi the rare slot while resting his preferred choice. But he curiously said after the game that Akpehi would be his number one for the AFCON finals. Matters became clear when Akpehi was shoved between the sticks as the Eagles squared Senegal in Ismailia. Akpehi would then prove his inconsistency by conceding the lone goal. Uzoho may have paid dearly for his loss of form in a season he has faced more troubles off the pitch than on it. But although Akpehi kept goal regularly SA side Kaizer Chiefs after his mid-season transfer to the club, his performance for Eagles had fallen far short – due mainly to lack of confidence. Third choice Ikechukwu Ezinwa, who plies his trade at NPFL side Katsina United is not particularly a bad idea in goal. But the coaching crew appears to have little faith in him, despite his promise in recent times. So, if Akpehi would man the Nigerian goal in the AFCON hostilities, it would bring Rohr’s gamble to the fore.
The foregoing scenario gave Douglas a little worry, although he tried to suppress it. “It’s a shame that the goalkeeper’s issue is being tackled on the eve of a major tournament and this says a lot about the coach’s carelessness,” the former defunct BCC Lions of Gboko captain said.
The worry seems to have gotten into Leicester midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi, who is easily the most consistent Eagles’ player going into this continental competition.
“We have to watch it in Egypt as unknown teams might shock us,” Ndidi said, minutes after the friendly’s loss to Lions of Senegal. No prize for guessing that he was referring to the virtual pushovers alongside Nigeria in Group B, Burundi and Madagascar, who have never met Nigeria at the AFCON stage, while also being wary of the third opponents, old foes Syli Stars of Guinea who seek resurgence in Egypt 2019.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has not handed Rohr any target, a mystery of some sort, especially considering that the coach has yet to atone for Nigeria’s ouster in the first round at Russia 2018 World Cup after making the round of 16 at the Brazil finals in 2014. As should be expected, Rohr has capitalized on the NFF’s silence, saying Nigerians should not expect too much from him as his team is replete with youngsters who lack the experience. “This competition will be tough and I expect Nigerians to understand that we cannot shy away from this reality,” he said from the Eagles’ base in Alexandria on Tuesday. Nonetheless, he would need to worry about particularly his midfield, which appeared to lack creativity in the last two matches against Zimbabwe and Senegal, and his strike force which has drew blanks in as many matches.
Nigeria begins the AFCON campaign on Saturday against Burundi after which it will take on Guinea on 26 before squaring Madagascar in the last group game on 30.