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EAGLES AND THE FEAR OF SALAH; NIGERIA NO LONGER HAVE ‘DREAM TEAM’

By Nurudeen Obalola:

SUPER EAGLES AND THE FEAR OF SALAH

Each time Mohamed Salah ran at the Real Madrid defence on Tuesday night, I had heart palpitations.

The Roma forward was a menace to the left side of the Real Madrid defence, constantly making a mug of the vastly experienced left-back Marcelo and centre-back Sergio Romero.

If Salah and his fellow Roma forwards had finished adequately, they would have given Real Madrid a mighty scare instead of the ultimately comfortable 2-0 win (4-0 on aggregate) for the Spaniards.

But I have no business with Roma’s Salah, apart from enjoying watching him play.

The Salah that worries me, and should worry many Nigerians, is the Egypt Salah, the one the Super Eagles must find a way to stop on 25 March and 29 March.

The challenge is that Salah has been more devastating for Egypt than he has been for Roma.

While his pace and trickery are guaranteed, what you can’t bet on is if he will have his scoring boots on.

Against Real Madrid in both legs of their UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie, Salah somehow left those scoring boots in the dressing room or somewhere farther away from the pitch.

He beat his markers repeatedly and got into good positions but his final pass or shot often went astray and Real Madrid were ruthless in punishing those mistakes.

But will he make those mistakes against Nigeria? If he does make those mistakes, will the Super Eagles be as ruthless as Real and score at the other end?

It must be pointed out that Salah’s attributes were highlighted mostly because Real Madrid are an attacking side, the kind of sides that take risks and leave gaps at the back.

Interim Super Eagles coach Samson Siasia usually prioritises attack over defence but this time he must find some balance.

Positive, attacking football is all fine if you have the resources to take care of things at the back. You must also consider the opposition and their key individuals.

There is no shame in Siasia altering his approach because he is up against Egypt. And Salah.

Against Real Madrid, Salah often isolated Ramos or Marcelo because the left-back either bombed forward and left Ramos exposed, or Cristiano Ronaldo did not offer much defensive cover from his wide left position.

In either case, Salah inevitably beat his one marker for pace or tricked his way past him. The Egyptian almost always won the duels and could only be stopped when he had to face two men at the same time.

The one thing Siasia must ensure is that Salah is not allowed to be one-on-one with whoever plays left-back against Egypt. If it means double-teaming the Egypt dangerman at all times or having one of the central midfielders leaning towards wherever Salah is, so be it.

The important thing is not to give the ex-Chelsea man too much breathing room because he thrives on space to run into. It’s quite simple; if you give Salah space he could destroy you. That he didn’t score against Real Madrid doesn’t mean he won’t score against Nigeria if given the same opportunities.

With Salah, prevention is better than cure.

But Salah is not the only Egypt star to keep an eye on. The Pharaohs have scored eight goals in just two qualifiers, so they must have more than one player doing something right up front.

While wondering aloud on Twitter about how the Super Eagles would stop Salah, one of my followers who I also follow, David Finecountry, replied: “Not just Salah. Egypt’s attackers are pacy: Basem Morsy, Kouka and Sobhi.

So who are these men that form the support cast for Salah?

A quick search reveals Basem Morsy as a 24-year-old Zamalek striker who has scored seven goals in seven games for Egypt. More importantly, four of those goals came in the two AFCON qualifying games against Chad and Tanzania, including a hat-trick in the 5-1 away win over Chad.

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Kouka, 23, is described as a 6’3 striker who has scored nine goals in 15 matches for Sporting Braga in Portugal. Kouka is actually a nickname, his real name being Ahmed Hassan Mahgoub.

Kouka has scored five goals in six senior games for Egypt.

The third player in Salah’s support cast in Ramadan Sobhi, an attacking midfielder who at just 19 has scored 11 goals in 48 appearances for Al Ahly. He has two senior Egypt caps and is obviously not as important as the other men but is not to be ignored.

The common thing with all these players, including 23-year-old Salah who has scored 22 goals in 39 Egypt games, is that they are young and dangerous. They have youth, they have energy, they have enthusiasm, they have pace, they have goals.

So Siasia just does not have to watch Salah. The Nigeria coach has to watch a posse of young forwards capable of doing him and his men serious damage.

One can only hope that the Super Eagles’ not-so-young defence can work out a way to contain these young men who are determined to get back to AFCON after missing three in a row.

ARE NIGERIA U-23S STILL THE ‘DREAM TEAM’?

One of my pet peeves is hearing or reading people refer to the Nigerian U-23 team as the Dream Team. It’s right up there with Nigerian parents based in Nigeria – usually ones who don’t speak much English – proudly telling you “my son/daughter doesn’t speak Yoruba/Igbo/Hausa.” Then speak the language with the poor kid. It’s not that difficult.

It’s a bit grating seeing Dream Team 2, Dream Team 3 and on and on and on. When is it going to stop? When it gets to Dream Team 50?

Of course there was once a Dream Team, but that was the only one deserving of that name. The 1996 Olympic team got that nickname because it was full of star names.

Even before they kicked a ball in Atlanta, almost every member of the squad was a household name. Who didn’t know Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu. Emmanuel Amuneke, Celestine Babayaro, Daniel Amokachi, Okechukwu Uche or Taribo West?

These were players who were known across the world, even before they went to the Olympics.

Because the team was full of instantly recognisable names who were already superstars, they merited being called the Dream Team. It had nothing to do with their Olympic gold. That came later.

So, how many of the players in the present squad are already superstars? How many superstars were in the 2008 squad, although they won silver?

Even Austin Eguavoen’s squad of mostly unknown and truly untalented players was referred to as ‘Dream Team 5’. Or was it 6? It gets confusing and some of us have lost count.

As talented as the present squad is, there is not ONE superstar in there. Except if we have accepted that the likes of Oghenekaro Etebo and Taiwo Awoniyi are already superstars.

The United States basketball team that was first dubbed the Dream Team was given the name because it was full of the biggest stars in the basketball world at the time. And it was the first time basketball pros were allowed to participate in the Olympics. You had to be living in Mars not to know Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Co.

Why not look for an enduring name that will stay for years without having to affix numbers?

Please, the Nigeria Football Federation, find a suitable name for the U-23s. And it shouldn’t be Dream Team.

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