By Sulaiman Alao:
In my last article, I wrote on how Victor Moses’ injury could be a blessing for the Super Eagles ahead of the games against Algeria and Argentina, and how true it turned out to be.
In Moses’ absence, alongside others like Odion Ighalo, Moses Simon, Ogenyi Onazi and Mikel Agu, the Eagles, made up of ‘European Benchwarmers’ as Algeria coach Rabah Madjer, labeled them, went on to silence the boastful coach and the Fennecs right in front of their home fans in Constantine.
The Algerians barely escaped outright humiliation no thanks to a dubious penalty awarded them in the late stages of the game which made the game to end 1-1. It was a good performance by the team, despite missing all the afore-mentioned players and with coach Gernot Rohr also deciding to rest team captain John Mikel Obi for the game. The other players gave a good account of themselves which opens Rohr to several options available to him, with which he was able to try out some new formations which also yielded great dividends against Argentina.
With the Eagles seemingly short of quality personnel, no one saw Nigeria’s victory over Argentina coming albeit in a friendly, as most football pundits never gave the Eagles a chance against the Albiceleste who paraded top stars such as Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala, Javier Mascherano and others. That captain and superstar Lionel Messi, was excused from the game not-withstanding, did little to douse many fans’ pessimism.
The first half of the game confirmed many fears as the Argentines tormented the Eagles at will and were deservedly two goals up through Ever Banega and Sergio Aguero in the 28th and 36th minutes respectively. But Kelechi Iheanacho was able to pull a goal back just before the break and that strike did much to alter the course of the game. Nigeria came on strongly in the second stanza and also benefited from Aguero’s exit after the Manchester City goalsmerchant suffered a dizzy spell and was taken to the hospital. With the Eagles under less attacking threats, the players confidence soared as they took the game to Argentina and it was not long as the goals rain started pouring in. Alex Iwobi scored in 52nd minute to equalize and two minutes later, debutant Brian Idowu shot Nigeria into the lead. Argentina coach, Jorge Sampaoli got desperate and was ringing several changes to his side but all to no avail as it was Iwobi who struck again in the 73rd minute to take the game beyond the South Americans.
The display against Argentina brought a number of things to the fore in the Eagles squad, especially in the absence of Moses and others.
First, it proves Mikel remains the most-important player in the Eagles. The skipper was a joy to watch in the Eagles midfield holding up play, making splitting passes and generally bringing his massive experience to bear in dictating play while at the same time running rings round the Argentines.
Moses however, remains the most skillful in the Eagles and the driving power in the attack, but Mikel looks quite irreplaceable in the team for now.
Secondly, in Moses’ absence, Rohr successfully tried out new formations with other players and it worked. The experiment threw up an Iwobi/Iheanacho partnership in a 3-5-2 system. In recent times, Moses, Ighalo and Simon had become the first choice in attack with Iwobi and Iheanacho coming on from the bench. Now Iwobi’s form and his understanding with Iheanacho will give Rohr a good headache. By the time the other injured players return to the squad, Rohr will be spoilt for choice in selection and tactical approach. The Eagles are now capable of shifting from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formations when the occasion demands.
Also, the absence of the other regular players, have thrown up a number of capable replacements and the competition for shirts is going to be very keen. Brian Idowu, Tyrone Ebuehi, Chidozie Awaziem, Ola Aina as well as John Ogu have all made strong claims to a starting shirt. Others like Anthony Nwakaeme, Kayode Olanrewaju and Henry Onyekuru will provide good options in the attacking line.
As things stand, it is only the goalkeeping department that is still problematic, no thanks to erratic and unconvincing performances by Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi. New boy Francis Uzoho showed some promise but he remains largely untested and we need to see him in more games. I trust Rohr to find a lasting solution to this problem soon enough, afterall, we still have about seven months to the Mundial.
At the moment, however, one can safely conclude that we now have the Super Eagles of Hope!