By Ed Dove
We are only hours away from the Super Eagles’ final World Cup warm-up, their rendezvous with the United States of America at EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida.
This match will afford fans the clearest view yet of Stephen Keshi’s plans for the team’s opening World Cup match against Iran. Super Eagles fans will be watching carefully to assess both the coach’s tactical decisions and personnel choices to learn what is in store for them in Brazil.
Unfortunately, preparations have been affected following the injuries to several key figures.
Elderson Echiejile hobbled off against Greece with a thigh injury, while Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo have since also been ruled out of the USA game after fitness concerns. It remains to be seen which of the three will still make it to the World Cup, but, sadly, it is perhaps too much to ask that all three are present for the opening contest.
Elderson, Omeruo and Musa represent big losses, they have started, respectively, 21, 15 and 12 of Nigeria’s last 22 full internationals. In their absence, several players will need to step up and take the mantle of their fallen comrades.
This article profiles the four key men for Nigeria against the United States this evening.
The Quest for the Third Man…the Search for the Number 10…call it what you will, define it as you want, but few would argue that there hasn't been one key element missing from the national side under the Stephen Keshi regime.
The side boast a fine striker, they offer strength on the flanks, they possess an accomplished backline and a particularly useful midfield, but that central attacking creative figure has largely been missing.
This is the position that Keshi has experimented with the most, with many false heroes coming and going.
Now that we have found Michael Uchebo, maybe…just maybe…it might be time to call off the search.
Not everyone is convinced, but the Cercle Brugge man has shown enough in his first three appearances for Nigeria to suggest that he might just be able to provide that spark behind the striker that has been missing since the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu thrived in such a role.
It’s fair to say that, to date, Odemwingie’s return to the national side has been fairly underwhelming. He entered the fray as a second-half substitute against Scotland, an entrance much-celebrated by the Super Eagles fans in attendance.
Here, his movement and touch were encouraging, and he did well to unsettle the Scottish defence ahead of Uche Nwofor’s late equaliser.
Against Greece, many expected a sustained impact from the Stoke City forward. Unfortunately, he struggled to deliver. Playing out of position, deeper in the midfield, he failed to influence events in the final third and often found himself tangled up and impeding the play, rather than contributing to it.
Tonight, Odemwingie should deliver a much improved performance.
Without Musa, one would expect the former West Bromwich Albion man to take up a role on the right-side of the forward three. Here, in tandem with Emmanuel Emenike, Odemwingie should be able to thrive and reveal the qualities that prompted Stephen Keshi to recall him to the national team.
The Big Boss won’t be completely vindicated in his decision to recall Odemwingie until the World Cup has passed without negative headlines. In the meantime, the occasion and the excitement surrounding this evening’s fixture should help Osaze rediscover his form.
The striker needs to begin to start proving Keshi right.
Moses delighted with his performance against Greece, the forward was lively and inventive and showed few symptoms of his inactivity with Liverpool over the last 12 months.
Against Mexico, in the springtime friendly, he looked shorn of match-sharpness. There were no such concerns against the Greeks, however, where Moses bedevilled the opposition defenders with both his explosive pace and dribbling skills.
The aspect of his game that was the most pleasing for many, however, was his tendency to work horizontally, across the pitch, popping up in danger zones, doubling up against defenders, and generally menacing the well-renowned Greek defence.
The United States will offer resiliency and discipline in defence, they are well-organised and supported by the fine Tim Howard in goal. They are quite cumbersome, however, and may be vulnerable to Moses’s pace and movement.
Nigeria’s defence has suddenly become an area of concern. This hasn’t always been the case, particularly not when keeping clean sheets against the likes of Mexico, Scotland and Ethiopia in recent times.
A combination of injuries and strange selection decisions have, however, suddenly given an air of vulnerability to the backline.
There aren’t many Nigerian fans who would have any kind of confidence in any of Joseph Yobo, Azubuike Egwuekwe, Kunle Odunlami or Juwon Oshaniwa taking a starting role in Brazil but, following the unfurling events of the last few weeks, this is becoming less a possibility and more of a probability.
Thus, Enyeama, one of the side’s truly outstanding players, becomes an even more important figure.
If the backline are uncertain, Enyeama can organise and cajole them. If there is hesitancy in defending crosses, then the stopper can come to claim loose balls. If an opposition striker breaks though, then he must be there to stand and smother.
Enyeama is Africa’s premier keeper and he will likely get plenty of opportunity to prove it over the coming weeks—beginning with tonight.