June 20, 2009

South Africa 2010: It is not yet Uhuru for Super Eagles

By Ayo Akinfe
Over a period of seven  days, our Super Eagles  played three games during which they scored five goals, conceded one, winning two of the matches and drawing one. It is thus no surprise that Nigerian football fans are feeling a bit light headed at the moment.

Rotimi Amachi

Rotimi Amachi

We played two friendly games against Ireland and France, coming away with a 1-1 draw with the Irish and a memorable one nil victory against Les Blues. The French win was all the more historic because it took place in St Etienne. No other African team has ever beaten France on French soil.

Of the three games, the most important, the World Cup qualifier against Kenya in Abuja proved to be the most difficult but at the sound of the final whistle, Nigeria had emerged 3-0 victors. On the whole it was a memorable week for Nigerian football but let us not get carried away.

We picked up three valuable points as part of the drive towards South Africa 2010 but it is not yet Uhuru. Although we beat Kenya convincingly, I believe that the scoreline flattered the Super Eagles. We were not worthy of the three-goal margin of victory in my opinion.

For me, the best thing to come out of the week was that several new players were introduced into the squad and equipped themselves well. Our back four of Adefemi Olubayo, Sam Sodje, Dele Adeleye and Elderson Echiejile were all making their senior debuts and despite this, we only conceded one goal in three matches.

These youngsters also proved the point that Nigeria should not be held to ransom by any of our big boys who think they can pick and choose which games they wish to appear in. We played all three games without seven or eight of our regulars and their presence was hardly felt.

Despite the good results, however, those of us watching the team’s performance with a critical eye were able to discern fundamental flaws with the team, which would easily be exploited by more formidable opposition. Once again, I place the blame for this at the foot of the head coach Shaibu Amodu.

For starters, I think we can safely set aside the results from the two friendlies. As their name suggests, friendlies are low-key affairs with a sedate pace, lacking in tempo and aggression and as such cannot be used as a barometer by which to measure a team’s worth.

Friendlies have their worth in that they show you how good a player is on the ball, provide indications as to whether he is good enough to play at this level but on the whole, they do not provide a stern enough test for the team as a whole. It is thus no surprise that our Eagles were asked more questions against Kenya than they were in the two games against France and Ireland.

Anyone who wants to be objective about the Kenya game would concede that on another day the result could have been totally different. Once Nigeria scored in the early minutes, our Eagles lost any form of coherence and the Harambee Stars dominated play until we got that fortuitous penalty that gave us our second goal.

For long periods of the game the Kenyans dominated midfield and ripped through our defence. Were it not for poor marksmanship on the part of their strikers, they should have scored at least two goals before that Obinna Nsofor penalty.

Just looking at the midfield where we have had countless problems of late, it is clear that Amodu is still out of his depth here. He started the game playing two holding midfielders in the form of Seyi Olofinjana and Dickson Etuhu, who bring identical qualities to the team.

Clearly, Amodu has a lot to learn about the way a modern midfield operates. One of those two should not have played. In his place should been a player who brings some offensive bite to the team such as Mikel Obi, Chris Obodo or Lukman Haruna. Amodu’s tactics meant that all the creative work was left to poor Uche Kalu, who not surprisingly was overwhelmed with the volume of responsibility thrust upon his shoulders.

It was not until Nwankwo Kanu was brought on in the second half that we managed to gain some sort of domination in midfield that enabled Osaze Odenwingie and Ike Uche to exploit the possession the Eagles had.

At the back too, I hope Amodu    spotted the discrepancies that were clear to the observant eye. For starters, neither of the full backs provided goal-scoring crosses for the strikers to get on the end of. In the modern game, you need that kind of width to get round stubborn defences.

In the heart of the defence, I hope Amodu was also taking note of the shortcomings of his centre-back pairing. Dele Adeleye needs to be told to stop allowing himself to be dragged out of position by strikers. Against more formidable opposition, the gaps he leaves behind will be ruthlessly exploited.

Sam Sodje also has to be taught a little more about positioning to make up for his lack of pace. On no fewer than three occasions, the Kenyans exploited this and managed to bear down on our goal unchallenged.

Many of our players were still playing like individuals and have yet to imbibe that team spirit of togetherness, which Clemens Westerhoff introduced into the 1994 squad. My beef with Amodu is that he lacks the know-how to deliver this. What you do not have, you cannot offer.

We are still very dependent on the know-how of the individual players and the experience they bring to the team, which is why we simply cannot afford to dispense with the services of the likes of Chidi Ordiah, Taiye Taiwo, Joseph Yobo, Danny Shittu, Mikel Obi, Chris Obodo, Obafemi Martins, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, etc yet. Amodu needs to find a way to blend the experience these players bring into the team with the energy, zest and enthusiasm of the likes of Ike Uche, Osaze Odemwingie, Uche Kalu, Dele Adeleye and co.

Given the growing stature of Adeleye, I would suggest he looks at playing three centrebacks in a 3-5-2 formation with either Uche Kalu, Rabiu Ibrahim, Lukman Haruna or Nduka Ozokwo as his playmaker.

Tunisia is going to be a different kettle of fish from Kenya and make no mistake about it, they will not be that charitable if we provide them with the free runs on goal that we offered the Harambee Stars. We need to get our collective act together before boarding that plane to Rades.

Personally, I am of the opinion that we need at least one friendly game before the Tunisia match to address this plethora of problems that the team still faces. So far, it has taken the intervention of the Nigerian Football Federation’s (NFF) technical committee and the presidential task force to make Amodu and his assistants observe little things. We cannot afford to relent as left to themselves the technical crew are like children.

This is not the time for sentimentality or trying to avoid bruising egos. If we want to go to South Africa 2010, we have to beat Tunisia home and away and all hands must be on deck to achieve this.

Given that it took outside intervention to get Amodu to notice players like Elderson Echiejile, it is utopian to think that he and his crew will be able to devise a strategy to beat Tunisia on their own. I just hope that like the rest of us, the NFF top brass were taking notes against Kenya.

We won that game despite Amodu and his technical crew not because of them. More vigilance is needed if we want to avoid sitting out South Africa 2010.

•Mr. Akinfe wrote in from London