The mood in the Nigeria camp following their 1-1 draw with Cameroon in Yaounde was one of jubilant celebration.
The Super Eagles’ international break had been “mission successful” according to Abdullahi Shehu, with the team pictured dining out with national chief Amaju Pinnick, being feted like heroes by the NFF hierarchy, and being praised roundly by former players for reaching Russia on social media.
Yet in one video that emerged—of the Super Eagles dancing raucously on the team bus after taking a point in Yaounde—captain John Obi Mikel is conspicuous in his absence from the celebrations.
While Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa lead the parade, the talismanic midfielder sits gazing out of the window, a cautious smile creeping across his lips, feet firmly planted on the ground—even though one or two of them may have been tapping to the strains of “I’m not gonna let you down.”
“JT and Lamps would never have celebrated like this,” you can almost imagine him muttering. “Not until the job is done.”
… and that was even before Patson Daka’s second-half strike had eliminated Algeria and boosted Zambia’s own World Cup hopes in Constantine on Tuesday.
Be under no illusion, Nigeria fans, Chipolopolo are firmly in this World Cup race, and have their tails up as they hunt down a ticket to Brazil.
With two games to go, the maths are not yet as simple as many make out.
Ahead tonight's game let me be the first person to congratulate Nigeria for qualifying for the 2018 Fifa World Cup. I believe! RT if you do pic.twitter.com/QmJsFnu2vT — Mutiu Adepoju (@MutiuAdepoju8) September 4, 2017
Here’s myth-buster number one: If Nigeria avoid defeat by Zambia in Uyo they still aren’t mathematically in Russia.
If Chipolopolo win in Nigeria, then they would qualify if they better their result in the final game which, considering the Super Eagles may find themselves up an Algeria side desperate to upset the party and restore some national pride, isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
If the two teams draw in Uyo, Zambia would advance if they beat Cameroon at home, Nigeria lose away in Algeria and Chipolopolo can overturn Nigeria’s goal-difference advantage.
Unlikely, perhaps, but that’s what they said before Zambia’s Africa Cup of Nations triumph in 2012…and then some!
Nigeria may remain in the driving seat, but a Zambian victory at the Godswill Akpabio is not such a far-fetched notion, particularly considering the attacking quality at their disposal. After all, momentum is a wonderful thing.
Instead of celebrating a World Cup qualification that’s still further off than it seems, Nigeria may do well to question why they were unable to kill off a Cameroon side that were there for the taking, and take maximum points from both matches.
Hugo Broos, certainly, played into the Eagles hands during the international window, as he opted to reconfigure Benjamin Moukandjo’s role in the team, and then drop Christian Bassogog altogether from the starting lineup in the second leg.
The changes deprived Cameroon of their two key weapons during the Nations Cup campaign, while simultaneously missing the opportunity to exploit perhaps Nigeria’s great weakness—their full-backs.
Similarly, while various (significant) absentees forced Cameroon to reshuffle their defence, it’s bewildering that the inexperienced Serge Leuko and Yaya Banana were the best Broos could muster.
In Yaounde, Nigeria—with all of their attacking might—came up against a defence shorn of Nicolas N’Koulou, Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, Joel Matip, Ambroise Oyongo and Allan Nyom…and were only able to net once.
It’s a failing that has seriously gone under the radar, and demonstrated the lack of a cutting edge that may yet come back to haunt the Super Eagles.
Gernot Rohr’s substitutions must also be called into question, particularly as the second match slipped so evidently away from Nigeria in the final half an hour in Yaounde—a reality hastened by the decision to replace John Obi Mikel with Mikel Agu, who had only made his debut in the first leg.
While Mikel was evidently tiring—and perhaps needed to come off—he offers qualities that cannot be quantified by distance travelled or tackles made, and was still offering a calming influence and a semblance of security to the backline when he was replaced.
The German opted for the inexperienced Porto man with 25 minutes still on the clock—and Nigeria a goal up—instead of bolstering his midfield with Israeli champion John Ogu or even Oghenekaro Etebo.
It was a questionable decision, but one that has largely been overlooked by triumphant Nigeria fans in the aftermath of what was, nonetheless, a successful international break.
Russia is getting closer, not doubt, but Nigeria aren’t there yet.