Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles underperformed tactically and mentally in their Group F opener against Iran on Monday night, leaving their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance
By Solace Chukwu
Having experienced mainly clement weather in many urban centres since the World Cup kicked off, Nigerians witnessed the skies give way in the middle of the afternoon on Monday.
If you are one for omens and portents, then you may have been tempted to agree with the majority who saw the sudden downpour as a sign of a momentous victory to come.
What they got instead was the most turgid display of the World Cup so far, in a game that could not end quickly enough. It provided us with the tournament’s first draw, and a goalless one at that. This was not in the script.
The challenge was clear for all to see: the Super Eagles had to hit the ground running.
With Iran, you would be hard pressed to find a more defensive-minded and unimaginative team in the entire competition. Neither was this an act of containment by Team Melli. They really are set up to not concede, and in this, Carlos Queiroz has shown the full range of his expertise, drilling a group of average players into a fierce defensive regiment.
The question then is: with the challenge already thrown down, why was Stephen Keshi unable to devise a coherent enough attacking strategy to overcome it? It is, after all, what coaches are paid to do. The dark arts of Jose Mourinho taught us that it is easier to coach defensive organisation than attacking coherence, but Iran were never going to re-invent themselves like Bosnia-Herzegovina have done.
Questions to answer| Keshi claimed he knew nothing about Iran - and it showed
On the eve of the game, Keshi went on record as saying he had no knowledge of the Iranian team. There are two possibilities with this statement. Either he was telling the truth, a possibility which is surely too naive to countenance; or he was trying to play mind games.
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It is hard to tell which would be more worrying.
The Nigerian team started the game brightly, hitting the target within two minutes and drawing a last-ditch tackle to deny Ahmed Musa on eight minutes. That was as good as it got.
The high tempo with which the Super Eagles started abated quickly, and all semblance of strategy went out of the window as the team simply resorted to hopeful punts forward from deep in midfield.
When the passes did hit their mark, Iran simply gobbled up the second balls. The deep midfield pairing of Andranik Teymourian and Javad Nekounam deserves credit for its discipline, creating an impenetrable square with their centre-backs.
For all Iran’s obduracy however, it is hard to shake the feeling that Keshi did just as much to frustrate his own team with the baffling decision to persist in playing Ramon Azeez in the central role behind the striker.
The Almeria youngster enjoyed a break-out season in Andalusia playing deeper, and looked utterly lost here as he did in the friendly against the USA. He was often bypassed, an indication that his team-mates have no confidence in him to carry the team’s creative burden.
When he did receive the ball on occasion, he appeared hesitant and overawed, quick to cede responsibility by playing unambitious passes sideways.
Azeez | Struggled to handle the creative burden
Another player who the entire team look to contrived to have his least effective showing ever in a Super Eagles shirt.
John Obi Mikel plays a role that is entirely at odds with his Chelsea position, tasked with providing incision from the central zone. He wears the No. 10 shirt, and this has unsurprisingly led to comparisons with Jay-Jay Okocha, that wondrous bohemian creator who wore the number with distinction for many years.
They are of course nothing alike (no one is as outrageously skilled as Jay-Jay), but the burden of the shirt dictates that in times of adversity, the wearer step up. Mikel completely failed to.
The Chelsea man appeared disinterested and languid, sapped of ideas and passion. At one point, Vincent Enyeama sought to roll the ball out, but it was Mikel’s midfield partner Ogenyi Onazi who made himself available for the pass. Mikel simply turned his back and trudged away.
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There is a sense that he does not grasp the weight of the shirt, and the responsibility that comes with it. One is reminded of the round of 16 encounter against Denmark back in France 1998; even in a losing effort, Okocha distinguished himself, running the Danish defence ragged.
Surely if he cannot be motivated enough by the pride of the shirt, Mikel has to realise that there is no greater shop window than the World Cup. Few managers or scouts would be enamoured with a defensive midfielder who is reluctant to receive a pass from his own goalkeeper.
His lethargy spread to the rest of the squad: winger Victor Moses was anonymous, and was rightly withdrawn after only 52 minutes; Ogenyi Onazi took on too much responsibility and kept losing the ball in midfield; the usually excellent Emmanuel Emenike fizzled out after a bright opening 15 minutes.
The introductions of Shola Ameobi and Osaze Odemwingie did little to provide a spark in a ponderous attacking display lacking any invention. Truth be told, Iran were never truly stretched.
Neither was the Nigerian defence, but even at that defensive stalwart Godfrey Oboabona contrived to pick up a knock that saw him replaced in the first half. He is now a doubt for the next game.
Remarkably for such a depressing performance, not much has changed with regards to the group. The Super Eagles hold their destiny in their hands. A win over Bosnia-Herzegovina will see Nigeria through with a game to spare. Keshi’s reputation as a slow starter is preserved, but it is his reputation as an expert man-manager, as well as his tactical nous, that will now be put to the test.
A recording of Bosnia’s loss to Argentina at the Maracana would not go amiss either.