Is Adepoju right to praise Nigeria’s CHAN Eagles?

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Salisu Yusuf Nigeria CHAN 2018
The Headmaster came out in defence of Salisu Yusuf’s side, despite their 4-0 hammering by Morocco in the CHAN final

Former Nigeria and Real Madrid star Mutiu Adepoju issued a statement of support for Salisu Yusuf’s home-based squad after their African Nations Championship final thumping by Morocco, insisting the team deserved credit for their run in the competition.

Understandably, the nature of the Eagles’ final defeat—an utter capitulation and a resounding 4-0 thumping at the hands of the hosts—went down like a lead balloon back home, with the squad losing much of the goodwill they’d earned during the tournament.

However, ex-international Adepoju was quick to leap to Yusuf’s defence.

“In the beginning, no one gave these boys a chance,” The Head Master wrote on his @MutiuAdepoju8 Twitter handle, “but against all odds, they finished 2nd.

“Take a bow, gallant Super Eagles.”

It’s a statement that demands a lot of unpacking, and certainly prompted a divided response on social media.

For a start, while it’s true that expectations were low for Nigeria ahead of the campaign, it’s worth asking to what extent that was the fault of Yusuf himself, who opted to eschew some of the NPFL’s top stars to pick a team that appeared light on firepower.

Despite consistent defence of his squad in post-match press conferences, Yusuf got relatively little from the likes of Ibrahim Mustapha, Mohammed Nur and Peter Eneji during the tournament, while leaving Kingsley Eduwo and Sikiru Olatunbosun at home.

After their opening 0-0 draw against Rwanda, expectations were low for the Super Eagles’ campaign, but was this largely the case because Yusuf had picked a squad that—with the exception of Anthony Okpotu and Gabriel

Okechukwu—had left some of Nigeria’s best players at home.

Similarly, while no one were expecting Nigeria to romp to the title with ease, Adepoju’s claim that “no one gave these boys a chance” seems a little simplistic.

We’re talking about Nigeria here, one of Africa’s powerhouses in almost every area, not Namibia, Rwanda or Equatorial Guinea.

Shouldn’t Nigeria, considering the quality available in the NPFL, and the resources available for the NFF, always be a nation who ‘have a chance’.

Also, even if Nigeria had overachieved in reaching the final, that alone doesn’t excuse the nature of their defeat.

The Eagles were outthought and outfought in midfield, offering precious little going forward, and were fortunate not to have been breached before Zakaria Hadraf opened the scoring late in the first half.

Ayoub El Kaabi twice hit the woodwork as Nigeria were overwhelmed, and the Eagles could feasibly have lost by six or seven.

“It seems the view that Nigeria did well just to get to the final is a common one,” Goal’s Solace Chukwu wrote on Twitter. “Not sure I'm comfortable with that; wouldn't be surprised if the team thought so too, and so produced this supine performance.

“Once you get to a final, you have to want to win it,” he added. “You can't pat yourself on the back. 

“Why settle for overachievement when glory is within touching distance?”

In terms of Nigeria’s run to the final being ‘against all odds’ and ‘gallant’; the latter claim may bear some fruit, but the latter considers somewhat laughable.

Again, had Namibia or Rwanda reached the final, that might have been ‘against all odds’, but as one of a clutch of potential tournament winners—and as regional giants no less—Nigeria making the last two was hardly some fairytale narrative.

Nigeria training CHAN 2018

Were they gallant?

Credit, certainly, is due to Yusuf and his staff for the way they rode a series of misfortunes en route to the final. 

Nigeria produced several admirable displays of character in game situations and were forced to deal with a litany of injuries.

During the campaign, they lost—either permanently or for spells—Daniel Itodo, Ifeanyi Ifeanyi, Rabiu Ali, Eneji, Kalu Orji and goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa. 

Considering the misfortune that befell them in the treatment room, certainly, it would be uncharitable not to commend their achievement.

However, in three matches, defensive performers won Man of the Match awards—Stephen Eze, Ezenwa and his replacement Dele Ajiboye— a testament to how a Rabiu Ali-governed midfield failed to control contes

Yusuf’s desire to persist with Ali and underperforming frontman Anthony Okpotu, while admirable shows of loyalty, have been used as sticks to beat him with and the latter’s profligacy became a sharpened issue.

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Did it need to be this way, or did Yusuf’s squad selection hamstring Nigeria from the off and ensure the Eagles were battling against themselves…as well as their various opponents in Morocco?

Yusuf, certainly, has broken new ground at the CHAN by taking Nigeria to their first silver medal in the competition and his campaign must be considered a success—even before considering the injury adversity they faced.

However, Adepoju’s commendation, particularly coming in light of such a one-sided whipping in the final, comes across as a celebration of mediocrity.