The Super Eagles land safely!

Forgive me. The only match I watched last weekend was the one that took place in Ndola. That’s why I am limiting my serious comments to that match only.

The Super Eagles went into the den of the Chipolopolo and came out unscathed and gallant conquerors! In defeating their archrivals they shattered the myth of Zambian invincibility against them on home soil and also rekindled the hopes of Nigerians that the possibility of the Eagles qualifying for Russia 2018 is now real.

That the Eagles won that match, I must admit, was a surprise. The vast majority of Nigerian football analysts had expressed what I thought was reckless optimism that the Eagles would win that match convincingly. Without any facts and precedents to back their prediction I was left wondering where such confidence came from.

Now I understand. They knew what I did not know about the current team and so, were right and I was limited.

From that match we have since seen that there is a remarkable improvement in the Nigerian team even though they played against a weaker Zambian team ranked lowest in the group.

In the first half of the match the Zambians were so ‘bad’ it took the threat of an unprecedented humiliating home defeat for them to wake up from their slumber and put up a fight.

In the second half they changed tactics, pressed the Eagles and attacked the Nigerian defense ceaselessly in an avalanche of forays that eventually yielded their consolatory lone goal.

This tactic completely turned the game around. The Nigerian team lost its initial rhythm and confidence and was lucky to have not conceded more goals due to the timidity of the Zambians in front of goal and the heroics of Nigeria’s goalkeeper, Ikeme.

That half also revealed the weak side of the Nigerian team, its defense. It started to leak like a running tap. Even the German coach of the Nigerian team acknowledged that he needed to work seriously on his defense line against the much stronger teams still to come.

The match was indeed a soothing balm for Nigerians. The Super Eagles had not won a match away from home in a long time. But despite the victory it is very clear to close observers that the Eagles have not ‘arrived’. There is still some way to go to get back to the being the best team on the continent. Thinking otherwise for defeating Zambia would be a big mistake.

The next set of matches against Algeria and Cameroon is going to be tougher and more difficult. These are teams higher up the rankings than Nigeria and with a depth in players with talent and the experience of playing at a high level of European football to make the task of going past them much more difficult.

Whereas Nigeria can take the second leg match against Zambia in Nigeria one match in the kitty, it is the four matches the Super Eagles will play against Algeria and Cameroon that will be huge mountains to climb, and provide a better measure of the progress they are making in the rebuilding process under the new German manager, Rohr.

The Eagles can learn from what the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon did in Algeria when, against all the odds, stoked the embers of fire in the group by securing a point away from home, forcing a draw against Algeria the current best team in Africa!

X-raying the Super Eagles.
One match into the group matches these are my simple general thoughts on the ‘new’ Super Eagles.

In Goal
Former Goalkeeper Vincent Inyeamah is no longer missed. His successor, Ikeme, is a very competent and safe pair of hands. He is cool, calm and collected with a commanding presence behind the defense line.

In Defense
The second half revealed Nigeria’s fragile underbelly – its defense line. Under pressure the left and right backs started to reveal cracks and leaks.
But for the naivety and tame finish of the Zambians in front of the Nigerian goal, plus the composure and efficiency of Nigerian goalkeeper, the match could have ended differently. Omeruo played with heart but his one clumsy mistake, a poor control in front of goal, gave away the lone goal.

In Midfield
The pair of Onazi in defensive midfield and Mikel in central midfield, was a delight to watch in the first half. They worked hard, played hard and controlled the game. With one of the forwards dropping back into the attacking midfield role, and the defenders on the flanks providing more attacking options, Nigeria looked good in midfield, particularly in the first half.

In Attack
Upfront, as everyone knew before the match, Nigeria now has a formidable arsenal of gifted forwards to choose from – Musa, Iwobi, Iheanacho, Ighalo, Moses and Ideye. With the right service coming from Mikel and Onazi, Nigeria’s frontline would be a nightmare, as they were against Zambia, for the teams in the group.

The Future
Having said all that, and with three points safely in their kitty, the Nigerian team is in a great position psychologically to go on to the next more difficult matches. A defeat would have been a real spirit-dampener.

The next match in November in Uyo, Nigeria, against the Desert Warriors of Algeria will provide a better measure of coach Rohr’s impact on an emerging new Super Eagles. That would be a match that will test the Eagles to the limit.

Other matches
I did not watch the other matches in the series to make any informed analysis. But some of the results speak.

Cameroon’s successful escape from Algeria with a 1-1 draw throws open the group and presents Nigeria a gift of hope.

Ghana could not go past Uganda at home. That was a surprise. I am told their undoing was the poor ground on which the match was played that limited the effectiveness of their tactics. For a team of Ghana’s pedigree that was a shocking result.

Egypt went to Congo Brazzaville and won by 2-1. That was not a big surprise. Somehow the Egyptians have mastered African football, always knowing what to do and always doing just enough to survive both home and away matches against most African teams.

Senegal’s 2-0 win against Cape Verde is no surprise at all. It announces the birth of a new era and a new generation of players for Senegal. The Cape Verde Islands don’t have the depth in players to sustain their occasional forays into the top of African football.

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