Puzzling selection sinks Nigeria's Afcon quest

GOALCOMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter 

Where once it seemed an aberration to have an Africa Cup of Nations without Nigeria, there is now a sense of resigned inevitability to it. The Fifa ranking cops quite a bit of flak (are Cape Verde really the best team in Africa?) but in the case of the Super Eagles, it may well be overgenerous.

Nigeria's Afcon elimination: The promise of 2013 ends in Alexandria

One miss might be considered unfortunate, but a repeat serves only to buttress the most uncomfortable of truths: Nigeria are no longer one of Africa’s best 16 teams. The 2013 triumph in South Africa seems now a distant memory, the cruel shadow of a haunting memory tugging away at the back of the mind, fluttering just out of reach and leaving in its wake baleful emptiness.

Charged with the task of exorcising that ghost was an eleven that appeared to defy logic and reason; so much so, it became convenient to see method in the madness: perhaps Siasia sought to spring a surprise on the Pharaohs, luring them into the sort of false sense of security that proved their undoing in the epic Biblical tale of Hebrew redemption at the Red Sea.

As it turns out, it was Nigeria’s wheels that came unstuck in the end. Far more worrying though than the underwhelming choices and performances of the likes of Aminu Umar and Stanley Amuzie, it was clear that, as a team, there was little conviction to how it sought to create the goal(s) required to remain in contention. Surely, if the idea was to take the game to the hosts from the off, a bit more invention in central areas than either Umar or Ahmed Musa are capable of would have seemed apposite.

Did Siasia's selection decisions undermine Nigeria?

The effect of both Victor Moses and the CSKA Moscow man taking up narrow positions meant oodles of space on the flank, but yet again – as it was against South Africa in Uyo in 2014 – neither full-back provided width on the overlap. The hosts therefore only had to defend the width of their penalty box, and were largely untroubled against an attack that appeared to feature four (five if you count a neither-fish-nor-fowl Oghenekaro Etebo) strangers uncertain of their collective moments.

Shehu Abdullahi at right-back – there’s an experiment that has spontaneously combusted in all our faces – looked totally overawed by the occasion, and was full of errors all game long. His haplessness evinced sympathy, and though it was Amuzie at left-back who was withdrawn at half-time, one gets the impression it was for lack of a proper deputy at right-back.

The Borg El Arab Stadium may have lacked the sheer weight of numbers that crammed itself into the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, Kaduna on Friday, but it made up for it with an atmosphere of hissing malevolence and zipping green lasers. It worked; aside captain John Obi Mikel and Daniel Akpeyi, who pulled off two splendid stops in the first period, no one else in green came out of this smelling of roses. If eleven subs were possible, Siasia may well have made them all.

 Mikel | The skipper was a rare ray of light in Alexandria

There was perhaps no greater indication that he had got his starting line-up wrong than the nature of his substitutions: all broadly like-for-like, each introducing a player who should have started the tie—Elderson Echiejile’s experience at the highest level was surely not something to sniff at; Etebo’s impersonation of a central midfielder, untidy and imprecise as it was, gave way to the smooth Azubuike Okechukwu; while Alex Iwobi, in his 20 minutes, showed more guile and ability to knit the play together than the limited Umar managed in 70.

Quite why Siasia thought it wise to keep his powder dry so long, with his team needing a win, is anyone’s guess.

He may have saved the fine wine for last, but by the time the changes were made, the Super Eagles were addled, swaying on their feet and pretty much out for the count. It seemed almost mercifully fortunate that Moses’s fizzing shot came off the post and spun out: renewed hope, in this case, would have been little more than prolonging the agony.

What this team needs; nay, what Nigerian football needs now, is surgery.