By Ed Dove
While Nigeria’s last game, against Uruguay, represented the toughest contest Stephen Keshi’s side have encountered in a competitive fixture, their next match, against world and European champions Spain will require the Super Eagles to excel like never before.
The team are only too aware that their sustained participation in the Confederations Cup hangs by a thread. Failure to beat Spain will almost certainly mean elimination, and even an unlikely victory would not guarantee progression.
The task appears to be nearly insurmountable. La Roja are, after all, probably the most successful international generation of all time. Their triumph at Euro 2012 last summer meant they became the first team to win three consecutive major senior tournaments, and the team has developed a style and an approach that has made them nearly impossible to beat.
Since winning the European Championships back in 2008, they have only lost two competitive fixtures, one against the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and the second against Switzerland, in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup.
It has been a period of sustained dominance that has seen the side come to be regarded among the greatest ever international collectives.
Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria are nowhere near this level of accomplishment or establishment. Bright, certainly; promising, definitely; but there are mountains to climb and marathons to run before this Super Eagles selection are even to be mentioned in the same breath as Spain circa 2008-2012.
Ideally, this game would have been an amicable formality—a luxury that Italy enjoyed in their Group A clash with Brazil last night.
Had Spain and Nigeria beaten Tahiti and Uruguay in their first two games, this match would have been a relative dead rubber, both teams through and playing for the privilege of avoiding the Selecao. While Spain performed their half of the bargain, outclassing the South Americans before putting ten past the amateurs of Oceania, Nigeria were defeated by La Celeste after a second half Diego Forlan winner.
Mikel takes on Uruguay
The result was a crushing blow for Keshi’s hopes of advancing to the semifinal, particularly considering the impression that Uruguay were there for the taking.
I believe that, despite the defeat, there are positives to be taken from that outing, and that—even though overcoming Spain might be a challenge too demanding even for this promising group of players—Nigeria can approach this contest with confidence and pride.
After the Tahiti game, despite the ostensibly impressive scoreline, I was critical of the Super Eagles attack and the ruthlessness shown by the forwards chosen by Keshi. Unfortunately, this was a trend that continued against Uruguay…and it is an area where the side drastically need to improve.
In the absence of Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike—both missing through injury—the supporting cast have failed to cover themselves in glory. The rotated pair of Anthony Ujah and Ideye Brown have both struggled to justify their inclusion, and I suspect that Keshi’s chopping and changing indicates he has lost some faith in the duo.
Joseph Akpala has all the tools to be an effective international forward, but despite being selected by a series of Super Eagles coaches, is yet to demonstrate that he can translate some exciting club form to the grander arena. So too Ahmed Musa, the promise is undoubted, but I have found the CSKA Moscow man to lack refinement at crucial moments during this tournament.
Other areas of the team can prompt optimism, and a glance away from the forwards should give Keshi and Co. reason for joy ahead of tonight’s crunch fixture.
Praise must probably begin with John Obi Mikel. Beyond his sumptuous goal, which will be remembered long beyond the result, he was majestic in the heart of midfield—often appearing to be a cut or two above his teammates. In brief, delightful glimpses we caught side of the prodigal attacking player he was before Jose Mourinho insisted on his development as a holding midfielder.
Mikel navigated play from the middle with an admirable ease and composure, his touches were, at times, imperious, and he sought constantly to bring the other Eagles into play and create space within the massed Uruguayan ranks.
When once more flanked by the industrious Ogenyi Onazi and an in-form Sunday Mba, expect Mikel to flourish even further as the midfield general in the heart of Keshi’s team.
I was also impressed with our fullbacks. Efe Ambrose came in for criticism ahead of the Cup of Nations, with some fans believing that his lack of pace should restrict him to a central berth, rather than a position on the flank. However, his game has developed over the last six months, and along with Elderson Echiejile on the opposite side, he is becoming another weapon in the Super Eagles’ arsenal.
Elderson himself was once again assured, and has been one of our most impressive performers in the last two games. I am particularly encouraged by his increasing proclivity to cut inside and alter the angles available to our attack.
Finally, our centrebacks; it is still remarkable to marvel at the composure, maturity and mutual understanding of the Godfrey Oboabona/Kenneth Omeruo partnership. Despite their slender years the pair have forged a great synergy, and once again looked incredibly unruffled against Uruguay.
Oboabona has been revelatory since forging a place for himself in the centre of defence. Despite being only 22 he has established himself as a competent international stopper. His recent tendency to play a more progressive game, and carry the ball out of defence, has been very encouraging, and Eagles fans can look forward to his development.
So too Omeruo, who looked mature and stylish in contending with Forlan, Suarez and Cavani. While Oduamadi’s performances look to have earned him a recall to Milan’s first team, perhaps the returning Jose Mourinho may choose to integrate Omeruo into his new-look Premier League squad.
Doubtless, Spain will prove to be the toughest test yet for Keshi’s collective. Perhaps, with the chances of progression being so slim, the shackles will be off, and we will see a truly progressive and invigorated performance from the West Africans. The Confederations Cup adventure may be coming to an end, but there are enough positive signs to make us all optimistic ahead of the World Cup in Brazil next summer.