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In what is expected to be an explosive encounter in Calabar on Saturday, takes a look at the men that will do battle as the Eagles hope to land a ticket to South Africa

By Ed Dove

With both defences unimpressive in September, much will be expected of the two goalkeepers. Between the Nigerian sticks, Liberia’s strikers are likely to find Vincent Enyeama waiting for them; The Cat spreading himself far and wide, launching and imposing, punching and grasping, and protecting the goal like his life depended on it. Although that’s what they were meant to be expecting in the first leg, when an unfathomable lapse in concentration by the former Enyimba stopper gifted Sekou Oliseh an equaliser. Many will remember Enyeama’s glorious performances of years’ past; once, famously, reducing Lionel Messi to a snivelling, shrugging, stuttering wreck as he put on a goalkeeping masterclass to keep the Argentine superstar at bay. 

It’s reasonable to fear that those days are behind the Nigeria number one now; blunders against Malawi and Liberia have begun to plant seeds of concern in the minds of spectators, enough so for the Maccabi Tel Aviv man to be legitimately considered an area of weakness for Liberia to expose. Alternatives do exist in the shape of Austin Ejide and Chigozie Agbim, but Saturday’s match may well offer Enyeama a golden opportunity to prove he can once more be a big game player for the Super Eagles. 

By comparison, young Liberia keeper Nathaniel Sherman was resilient in the first leg, and the Nigerian forwards may need both invention and inspiration to defy him. In front of Enyeama, captain Joseph Yobo will be charged with keeping an eye on the galloping Sekou. The CSKA Moscow midfielder looked lively in the first leg, and his goal blew the tie wide open. Having begun his career in Ebedei, in Ogun State, Sekou knows all there is to know about Nigerian football – what greater motivation to cause an upset then the ability to silence thousands of your adopted countrymen? And for Yobo, what greater inspiration than a place at the continental high table in 2013 – at 32, how many more chances will he have? 


                                          Vincent Enyeama | Must prove he's still the best for Nigeria

In midfield, the addition of John Obi Mikel appears to have rendered all else irrelevant – that is if some news outlets are anything to go by. His return has ignited excitement in the fans, and uncovered hope in the hearts of fans disillusioned by Nigeria’s tepid display in the first leg. It’s impossible to argue that the Chelsea midfielder doesn’t have the biggest profile in the squad; he is Nigeria’s star, perhaps their talisman, a European champion, and, let’s face it, a player with the power to control the game and carry the Super Eagles beyond the reaches of the Lone Stars. 

Mikel isn’t flawless, far from it, and indeed in recent years he has been much maligned by fans and reporters alike. Surely though, the colossal figure that he is, competing week in week out in the Premier League, should have too much about him to be troubled by his opposite numbers in the Liberia squad. I don’t wish to advocate arrogance nor complacency, but Naija fans should reasonably be able to assume that James Lomell or Isaac Pupo, playing their football in Indonesia or Malaysia respectively, are unlikely to give Mikel, at the peak of his powers, too many sleepless nights.

The inclusion of the Chelsea man also prompts the examination of some of the interesting internal dynamics that occur within the squad. All eyes will be on Keshi’s ability to meld together Obi Mikel, jetting in from West London, and talents such as Ejike Uzoenyi and Godfrey Oboabona, who play football for local clubs. Nosa Igiebor opened the scoring for Nigeria in the first leg after a counter attack by Victor Moses, and it will be fascinating to see whether the stability potentially offered by Mikel can give the young Betis midfielder a platform to create from. 


                                         Joseph Yobo | Last opportunity to shine at the Nations Cup?

Up front, Nigeria would seem to have the march on their West African rivals, although considerations can’t help but be made for those players not selected. Despite scoring the sole goal in Levante’s win against Valencia at the weekend, Obafemi Martins will once more be absent – a career reviving at the domestic stage, but not, as yet, in the green of Nigeria. Peter Utaka, the highest scorer in the Chinese league, is also missing, while Victor Anichebe and Sone Aluko appear not to have performed well enough in recent games to warrant selection, for now at least. 

Those chosen appear to have enough about them to strike fear into the hearts of Lone Star defenders. Ideye Brown’s terrific scoring rate at Dynamo Kyiv has continued this season, and the former Sochaux man appears to have taken to the Champions League like a duck to water, having scored in both the third qualifying round and in the play-offs. The Nigerian wonderkid Victor Moses is another striking option for Keshi, and after an impressive display in the first leg, looks to be one of the boss’s sharpest weapons. Moses too is enjoying a maiden season in the Champions League, having made his debut last week against Nordsjaelland, and will be looking to link up with another of the competition’s stars, Emmanuel Emenike, who scored a brace in a losing effort against Celtic last week. Ikechukwu Uche, who missed a few good chances in the first leg, is also selected, and offers a different alternative up top. 

Returning to the field after suspension with West Bromwich Albion this weekend, Peter Odemwingie is, however, missing from Nigeria’s selection. This writer fears that if Liberia prove difficult to break down on Saturday, or if Naija’s strikers fail to bring their shooting boots, the Soviet-born striker’s name may well be whispered longingly around the curves and cascades of the U.J Esuene Stadium. 

Until then though, Keshi’s selection offers a keen blend of youth and experience, of pace and of power, of solidity, and of flair; enough, hopefully, to see the Super Eagles comfortably on the plane to South Africa 2013.

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