Many key narratives will unravel and unfold between now and February 10, when the continent’s top two sides will battle for the Afcon title at the National Stadium in Johannesburg. Will Victor Moses prove himself on the continental stage? Will John Obi Mikel finally play as the midfield general we have been demanding? Will Joseph Yobo win the title he has desired for so long?
Answers may begin to emerge as early as January 2, when the Super Eagles come up against Catalonia at the Estadi Cornellà El Prat, the home ground of Espanyol. Whilst the match itself is primarily a gateway to the ensuing Cup of Nations, an overture to the chief spectacle, it is also a little drama all of its own – an engrossing prospect and an occasion that has the potential to set the tone for 2013.
Initially, it’s important to iterate that even though Catalonia aren’t (yet) a nation, and aren’t allowed to compete in official FIFA competitions, this bout will be a contest as tough as any Nigeria have faced in 2012. The dominance of Barcelona, and the fertile affluence of its La Masia academy have furnished the Catalonian national side with talent that would demand attention in any of the world’s official national sides. In fact, the current World and European champions Spain have – as is to be expected – a large overlap in personnel with La Segadora.
The squad called up to face Nigeria has no fewer than 10 Barcelona players in its ranks. Victor Valdes, deputy to Iker Casillas for Spain, but undisputed No. 1 for Catalonia, is likely to start, whilst the defence could feature Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Jordi Alba. World Cup winning left-back Joan Capdevila is also in the squad, whilst Xavi and Sergio Busquets will provide effortless control in the colours of the Catalan XI. A multitude of options up top include former La Masia prodigy Bojan Krkic, Jonathan Soriano, and Barca youngster Cristian Tello.
Evidently, this band of superstars would be a match for any international outfit, and when you consider the added aspect of the outgoing Johan Cruyff – a legend in the North East, and sure to receive an emotionally charged send off from the job he has held since 2009, you could understand Keshi not envying the challenge that awaits his men in green.
But confidence is high, equalled only by a nation’s expectation, and this match, a once-in-a-lifetime contest, will mean everything to those chosen to participate.
Who is that likely to be?
As is often the case with friendly matches so close to an international centrepiece, the manager is charged with the dual tasks of further assessing players and finalising his squad, and also developing and establishing a style of play and a relationship and understanding between his first XI.
The previous friendly against Venezuela appeared to focus on the former objective, with new players such as Solomon Kwambe, Shola Ameobi, and Bright Dike given a run out at the expense of more established names. Observers saw Keshi attempting to form a ‘Plan B’, a more attacking option at full back, and a more physical approach up-top – selection choices that may well provide invaluable variation come the tournament’s latter phases.
Since the Big Boss named his initial list of 32, attention has focused on those players excluded from the squad; Obafemi Martins, Peter Odemwingie’s fit of pique, Alan Pardew casting doubts over the participation of Ameobi, and Danny Shittu’s request to opt out of the tournament. Come January 2nd, however, and attention will once again turn to those players chosen to carry Naija’s baton in South Africa, and to represent their countrymen at the continent’s high table.
Will Keshi, as reports suggest, take the opportunity of a match against such high quality opposition to blood some of his home-based players against the kind of quality that they will never have encountered in the Nigerian Premier League?
In a move unprecedented for the Super Eagles since the early 90s, roughly a third of the preliminary squad was made up of players plying their trade in the local league. Shunning many of the Nigerian in the Diaspora, Keshi has focused on those players that have excelled in the NPL, and it will be the daunting challenges of January, beginning in Catalonia, that will prove whether his faith has been well-founded.
Historians among you will recall the successes that both Egypt, and more recently, Zambia, have enjoyed in the Nations Cup, employing a crux of players drawn from local leagues, and perhaps investing more in the team ethic. Maybe the likes of Oboabona, Uzoenyi, and Reuben Gabriel will prove themselves to be of the talent required to compete against the continent’s finest – this rite of passage begins against Catalonia on Wednesday.
Whilst a repeat of the last match between the two sides – a 5-0 defeat for Nigeria – would be a veritable disaster ahead of the Afcon, Keshi is right to suggest that the result is of secondary importance, with a competent performance by the players selected being the prime requirement. Playing against the superstars of Catalonia, this will be no simple task, but those Super Eagles selected have an irresistible opportunity to not only test their mettle against some of the world’s finest, but also to set the tone for 2013, and the Afcon that awaits.