By Ed Dove
When the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations commenced last month, three young starlets were expected to shine in South Africa.
Younes Belhanda, star of Montpellier's improbable Ligue 1 title win in 2012, and Porto's Christian Atsu failed to seize the moment and truly emerge. But Victor Moses finds himself on the doorsteps to immortality as 170 million Nigerians turn to him to seal glory.
The tournament thus far has been a microcosm of Moses' career. Early promise created scintillating anticipation across Nigeria, as a nation heralded the twinkle-toed forward, who had been inducted into the international scene as the figurehead of Stephen Keshi’s revolution.
Then, reality set in as stodgy, stubborn defences, and the pragmatism of international football prevented the Lagos-born attacker from stealing the show for the Super Eagles.
A subdued opening to the Cup, a tournament that struggled to spark early on, threatened to dampen the goodwill that surrounded Keshi’s troops, including his most-prized asset. Eventually, the sublime talent and supreme ability shone through, and Moses is on the cusp of greatness with the west African powerhouse.
The breakthrough came against Ethiopia, when he was the catalyst in a famous victory; the difference between progression and elimination.
Struggling to find a breakthrough, and labouring to a 0-0 draw, Moses employed two of the qualities that made him so coveted in his early days. His magnificent close control and searing pace were too much for the besieged defence to contend with.
|NIGERIA'S JOURNEY TO THE FINAL|
v Burkina Faso
v Cote d'Ivoire
As Nigeria upped the ante, their secret weapon surged to the fore. Twice Moses was too direct, too intense, for his inexperienced opposition, twice the Ethiopians were forced into fouls inside their penalty area, and twice the Chelsea man stepped up to the spot and dispatched the kick with an aplomb usually associated with men 10 years his senior.
‘Moses leads to the Promised Land’ – the headline was written even before the final whistle.
Whilst this game demonstrated his ability to terrify and to bewilder, the subsequent contests were evidence of a subtler side to his game, the mature qualities of the 22-year-old.
Few spoke of Nigeria’s superstars in the build up to the side’s clash with Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter-final. It was the tournament favourites, the Golden Generation, who dominated the previews, while Moses merely received a line or two; a menace to Ethiopia, sure, but likely to be squeezed out by the composure and experience of the Elephants.
He was once again influential – the Ivorians struggled to deal with his direct running and ferocious dribbling. Yaya Toure’s first-half shoulder-barge demonstrated the discomfort the youngster caused. While Emmanuel Emenike and Sunday Mba stole the show, Moses was a constant thorn in the opponents' side, persistently prompting and provoking with his ambition and his ability.
Unlikely progression was celebrated across the nation, as Keshi’s youthful outfit grew in stature and confidence.
The semi-final against Mali presented similar magnitude and equivalent pressure, the like of which would make lesser figures crumble and desist. No-one in the Nigerian camp could have been ignorant of the immense challenge that lay ahead – but few would have ignored the significance of the occasion either.
The battle was another watershed for the inexperienced side. This was not victory snatched from the jaws of failure, nor was it the unlikely upset of a lethargic, complacent superpower. It was a demolition, a rout, 3-0 up at half-time, 4-1 at full-time, a true coming-of-age for Keshi’s men.
And Moses was at the heart of it.
His deft wing-play, delicious footwork, and delectable cross produced Nigeria’s first goal, his endeavour affording left back Elderson with an unmissable opportunity to head them into the lead. Moses was also the architect for the side’s second goal, his inventive running and visionary passing forging an opening for his strikers to profit.
Regardless of the result in the final, this tournament, and Moses’s performances in the latter stages, have catapulted the Chelsea man into the continental spotlight. His performances in the knockout rounds, against west African heavyweights, have finally underlined a talent that has threatened to emerge for years.
In the beginning of January, Moses departed Stamford Bridge as a bright prospect, a prodigal hope for west Africa’s fallen giants, he returns a man; a composed and established individual, capable of bewitching the most composed of defences, and of drawing blood from the tightest of back lines.
Victory, however, may well propel Moses into the upper echelon of Africa’s pantheon of Greats.