COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
After the entire furore that surrounded Gernot Rohr’s goalkeeping pick before Nigeria’s clash with age-old rivals South Africa at the FNB Stadium, it was somewhat anticlimactic seeing the German tactician opt for Enyimba’s Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
A few critics had put forward Theophilus Afelokhai as a contender to be between the sticks in the days leading up to the game, owing to the fact he’s ahead of Ezenwa in the pecking order at the Aba-based club.
Conversely, others suggested it could be Daniel Akpeyi’s chance at redemption with the Super Eagles.
The much-maligned Chippa United stopper hadn’t seen any game time for the West African giants since his comical gaffe in a 4-2 friendly win over Argentina last November, but had been giving decent performances in recent months, evidenced by his three clean sheets in nine league appearances in what has been a troubled campaign for his side.
Last term, by comparison, he kept 10 shut-outs in 23 games.
For Afelokhai, it was always going to be a long shot thinking he’d be thrust into the limelight off the cuff, and having him start against Bafana Bafana would surely have been due to the sudden unavailability of the capped pair.
In truth, the goalkeeper’s pick was always between Ezenwa and Akpeyi, and Rohr plumped for the former.
It was the Enyimba goalie’s first appearance for the Super Eagles in just over a year (his last outing was a 1-1 draw in a World Cup qualifier against Algeria in early November), and he might have expected a baptism of fire on his return to the side. Frankly, that was logical owing to the fact Stuart Baxter’s side dropped the ball in their last qualifier against Seychelles, that ended goalless, which consequently saw them surrender top spot in Group E.
Perhaps aided by Rohr’s decision to go with a back five on the day, the 30-year old had very little to do in the opening exchanges as both sides tried to get the measure of one another.
With the three-time African champions going in front after 10 minutes, via the unlucky Buhle Mkhwanazi, who diverted a Samuel Kalu cross past the helpless Itumeleng Khune, it was always going to be more difficult to test the stopper, as you sensed the Nigerians would play even deeper and try to pick their moments to go forward.
The one time you felt the Enyimba shot-stopper would be called upon, only minutes after his side’s opener, Kalu made a last-ditch tackle to prevent an effort from just outside the six-yard box, and the stand-in was limited to just claiming crosses and loose balls in the box.
Even though Bafana controlled the game, they didn’t have any clear sight at goal after the aforementioned moment, often let down by their decision making in the final third. Ezenwa remained largely idle, although he did make a hash of claiming a corner, moments before Baxter’s side levelled, when he struggled to make his way across a crowded goalline.
He could do very little about the home side’s equalizer just before the half-hour, as he was left largely exposed by his defence. On the one hand, you’ve got to credit Percy Tau for showing great individual skill to beat the duo of William Troost-Ekong and Kenneth Omeruo, before following that up by unselfishly setting up Lebo Mothiba to finish from close range.
However, one has to question all three centre-backs in that phase of play. Firstly, the aforementioned pair for getting beaten so easily by Tau, while Leon Balogun’s lack of defensive awareness to track Mothiba would have irritated Rohr.
Disappointingly for South Africa, though, they failed to build on pegging the West Africans back, with Ezenwa becoming nothing more than a glorified spectator for the remainder of the game – all he had to do was stay alert to claim any loose balls. The home side only registered a measly three efforts all game, managing a sole effort on target (Mothiba’s goal) in 90 minutes… on their own patch. By contrast, Nigeria had seven.
A lack of height in the box made it impossible to go route-one by means of long balls – something Baxter ironically condemned after the game – and crosses into the box. Granted, hindsight is 20/20, however owing to the fact that dealing with crosses has been a continuing problem for Rohr’s men for a while, the home side might have found a bit more joy if they had the physical presence in the box to test their opponents’ defence.
In the end, the stalemate was probably a fair result, and while some Nigerians may feel aggrieved by having two goals chalked off, the overall performance of the team wouldn’t have justified a win.
For Ezenwa, he did what he had to with minimal fuss, and while he may have been relieved with not having too much to do in Johannesburg, his relative inactivity on the day ironically did more harm to his chances of usurping Francis Uzoho as Rohr’s number one.