It is barely four days away from the start of the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™ and the injuries keep on robbing nations of their big names. Radamel Falcao, Rafael van der Vaart and recently, Franck Ribery and Marco Reus are already ruled out. Meanwhile, Portugal point man and Balon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, is flirting dangerously with this list.
Nigeria got its own first punch with the muscle injury to Elderson Uwa Echiejile on Saturday night, ruling him out of a second World Cup after one substitute appearance at South Africa 2010™. The 26-year-old has made the left back position his since the ouster of Taye Taiwo from the ‘new Super Eagles’, delivering several good displays.
The Benin-born defender’s move from Braga to mega-rich French club, AS Monaco in January has backfired spectacularly, after being reduced to a bench warmer at the principality club with only three appearances till date. Nigeria’s coach, Stephen Keshi, had to get his man into game shape ahead of the biggest football tournament in the world through friendlies, and this saw him start the encounters against Scotland and Greece.
This brings back the question: why the furore about friendly matches before a major tournament if it will put your major players at risk of missing the tournament proper?
Yes, it affords nations the opportunity to fine-tune and execute tactic practised in training, unveils the strengths and weaknesses of the team and their coaches’ formations, and builds match fitness of players short of it. But are these worth the injury risks?
Taking a detour from Echiejile’s injury and ignoring the allegations of match-fixing, it is clear that the Super Eagles are not ready to take on the world — at least according to the players’ displays in the three friendly games.
The team’s midfield is still lethargic and has not clicked into gear, and it has hardly found its rhythm. The defence also switches off during periods of the games and it is during these periods that the opposition took advantage of to test our goalkeepers and score their goals: the World Cup proper would be more brutal.
These friendlies have revealed that the defence struggles when facing pacy opponents, especially on counter attacks. Scotland’s Nigerian import, Ikechi Anya ran the defence ragged and it was more brutal against the American quartet of Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and the overlapping full-back, Fabian Johnson. Imagine such a situation against Argentina’s fearsome speedy attackers led by Lionel Messi, and the result shouldn’t be hard to predict.
The AFCON-winning centre back pairing of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo (if fit) will need to be revisited as centenary-capped captain Joseph Yobo has shown in these friendlies — especially against the USA — that he is out of his depth. He was at the heart of both goals conceded on Sunday morning and was turned inside-out for the second goal by a player who had endured a lacklustre season at relegation-threatened Sunderland and had not scored for the USA in almost two years, Jozy Altidore.
It is also indicting to see both USA goals come from the left side of defence, following Echiejile’s injury. His understudy, Juwon Oshaniwa — now our only recognized left back — performed creditably in the game. The Ilorin-born defender, who spent five years in the Nigerian Premier league before leaving for Israel in 2012, showed his attributes: strength, tough tackles, good marking in one-on-one situations. He completed most of his passes and crosses (from deep), and adequately supported his winger.
The former Sharks of Port Harcourt player, however, lacks positional sense, does not have the confidence of Echiejile in coming out of defence and dribbling his way into attack with the ball at his feet, and he is also a long way off striking telepathy with his wing man. Add these to his poor reading of the game, the MS Ashdod of Israel first-choice left-back could be a target for teams at the World Cup.
Both sides of his game were on display against the USA, especially the first goal. He lost is position to intercept a pass, and his failure opened up space for USA to inflict damage on a defence that had lost its shape an composure, with Oboabona beaten at the by-line while trying to cover the left-back’s space and captain Yobo failing to keep track of Altidore, reducing himself to a ball-watching fan as the striker tapped in from close range.
Prior to the match, the USA game was seen as an indication of the Super Eagles’ state of preparedness for the Mundial and it certainly helped, showing us the enormous task at hand for the coaching crew.
The attack has sorted itself with Emmanuel Emenike expected to lead the line alongside any two of Victor Moses, Osaze Odemwingie and Ahmed Musa Emmanuel Emenike supporting from the wings — the only problems to be solved here being the selfishness and poor decision-making of the wingers, including their epileptic shooting ability (cue Ahmed Musa).
As the Eagles fly out to Brazil, it is being rightly discussed across the country that the outcome of our first match against Iran will define their sojourn. However, whatever the outcome of the match, the coaching crew of the Super Eagles is well-equipped technically, tactically and psychologically to help the team overcome bigger opposition in Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Even though this is not the AFCON tournament, members of the coaching crew led by head coach Keshi are seasoned coaches with World Cup experience, both as players and coaches; and this would most certainly help Nigeria to at least the round-of-16 in Brazil. Go, Super Eagles, Go!!!