By Ed Dove
Cape Verde in Venda were Nigeria’s penultimate stepping stone ahead of Africa’s continental centrepiece beginning next week. But instead of striding boldly forward towards a tournament that some expect them to conquer, Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles enter South Africa stumbling and stuttering. What can be taken from a day when much was revealed about the coach’s mindset and the squad’s philosophy ahead of Afcon 2013?
Much of the talk ahead of the match centred on Bright Dike, and the Portland Timbers frontman’s exclusion from Keshi’s final list of 23. As my colleague, and Goal Nigeria deputy editor Babajide Alaka concluded on Thursday, Dike’s omission, and the inclusion of Enugu Rangers' man Sunday Mba is ‘baffling’. Many observers were warmly encouraged by Dike’s performance against Catalonia, and suspected that the USA-based frontman had done enough to convince Keshi of his worth.
Writing last week, I surmised that in the absence of a whole host of Super Eagle hotshots: Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, Sone Aluko, as well as ‘Plan B’ Shola Ameobi, Dike would travel with the squad as Keshi’s muscle-off-the-bench, his physical game changer, his injection of energy and impact late in the day. It seems I, and many others, were wrong, and Dike will watch on with the rest of us as the Super Eagles take on the continent.
Dismay in some quarters of Naija support was compounded by the side’s insipid attacking display in Venda. As Dike was so forceful and assertive in his finish against Xavi, Puyol, Valdes, and Co., so Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses were limp and disappointing, the latter lashing out after a rash tackle, and being replaced at the break.
Ideye Brown added some impetus after his introduction, with Nigeria growing into the game in the second half, but Keshi is unlikely to be encouraged by the displays of his chosen attacking options following this friendly.
Regarding Nigeria’s midfield trio, all eyes were on John Obi Mikel.
Two key questions are awaiting response from the Chelsea-man during this Cup of Nations, and Wednesday night provided little in the way of conclusive response. Firstly, will Mikel perform at this tournament, will he finally demonstrate his desire to wear the famous green of Nigeria, and will he, after such a long wait, begin grabbing international matches by the throat and dominating the middle of the park as he has long threatened to do? There is a top class performer in there, but too often the maestro is absent.
John Obi Mikel | A lot rests on his shoulders
Secondly, how will Mikel be utilised, or rather, how will Keshi employ the player to capitalise on his diverse talents? Ideally, I believe Mikel could be the side’s midfield general and play-prompter, employing his vision and passing to control the game for Naija and dictate our rhythm. However, this direction would ideally require some sort of stability alongside him, and unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence that Keshi’s elect can provide this.
Ogenyi Onazi was ineffectual, and was eventually replaced, whilst Fegor Ogude was even more disappointing, and came in for some criticism from Nigerian supporters who struggle to see exactly what the player brings to the team, particularly in the wilderness of the first half.
I have previously championed the cause of Raheem Lawal, the energetic, all-action Demirspor midfielder, and I had hoped that he could provide stability in the middle of the park. Alas, Lawal has been cast away by Keshi, and the wisest solution now may well be to give a slightly more reserved role to Mikel. Whilst this may well compromise the Chelsea player’s ability to influence proceedings in the final third, it could give Naija much needed constancy and control in the middle of the park, and may well encourage and permit the more attacking talents of Onazi, Obiorah, and Igiebor to flourish. Incidentally, the Real Betis man made his entrance at half time and delivered an encouraging 45 minute cameo – perhaps it is he that holds the creative keys to the Super Eagles.
Despite preserving a clean sheet, it was Nigeria’s defence that provoked the most dander from supporters. Austin Ejide was selected ahead of Enyeama and Agbim, but departed the field of play in the first half after going to ground clutching his hamstring. A worrying sign for the keeper and for Naija fans, but not for Enyeama, who looked relieved to take to the field and once more find himself holding the fort between the sticks.
Keshi perplexed many by opting for Godfrey Oboabona in the middle of the defence, and playing Celtic man Efe Ambrose at right back. The reshuffle didn’t work, with Oboabona looking unconvincing, and Ambrose being troubled endlessly on the flank. Regularly caught out for pace, and looking increasingly unsteady and bewildered, the experiment was ended prematurely at half-time, with Kenneth Omeruo brought on to replace the floundering fullback.
Omeruo was altogether more convincing, and managed to marry defensive solidarity with the occasional attacking threat. A more measured option than the discarded Solomon Kwambe, and considerably more mobile than Ambrose, the youngster impressed and may well find himself in pole position to take the right back berth. Juwon Oshaniwa has also been selected, and provides another option, although will primarily be seen as backup to Elderson – another who endured an uncomfortable evening.
The second half brought improvement from Nigeria, and some solace. Occasionally, in golden glimpses, we saw what Mikel could and should be for this Super Eagle generation, as he took the ball under control, looked up, and conducted the action. It’s trite to suggest that the fate of this tournament rests upon his broad shoulders, but it’s hard to overlook the potential influence that he could have on this team.
As for Cape Verde, the side were much as we expected, determination and organisation – two most valuable qualities at international level, if not any level. The loss of Braga striker Zé Luis – who misses the tournament due to ‘personal issues’ is a real blow, but don’t be surprised to see the islanders upset the applecart once again.