There’s no way to dress it up—Nigeria’s friendly defeat to Uyo on Wednesday evening was an absolute disaster.
The Super Eagles are on a poor run of form, but this has to be up there with the worst of them.
While Stephen Keshi’s side were defeated away in Sudan and at home against the Republic of Congo—a side who, let us not forget, came within half an hour of a spot in the Afcon semi-finals—I would argue this is the worst defeat since a loss to Peru in May 2012.
It’s possibly even more disappointing than that.
In this feature I outline five key things that the Super Eagles must get right to turn this defeat around and to return to winning (or at least more respectable) ways against South Africa on Sunday.
No more sentimentality
At times, the subplot became the main story on Wednesday evening as Vincent Enyeama’s centenary celebrations threatened to take over the whole event.
It’s right that we should celebrate the Cat—both for his longevity and excellence—but in hindsight, maybe it would have been better to begin the commemorations after a victory had been secured.
Perhaps the governor of Akwa Ibom could have saved the presentation ceremony until after the match, maybe the keeper could have saved his teary-eyed acceptance speech until after Uganda had been buried.
When things weren’t clicking against Iran in the 2014 World Cup, how we wish we’d had a few more occasions for the squad’s peripheral players to enjoy a little more cohesion and mutual understanding…
Ahead of and during the match, the focus must be on making the most of the opportunity and of securing the best possible performance—which often, inevitably, leads to victory.
To throwaway an international date to commemorate Vincent—which is certainly how it feels if not how it was intended—represents a waste.
Hope Akpan and Ogenyi Onazi were two of the side’s better performers on Wednesday—particularly the latter—but their inclusion in a midfield three along with Steven Ukoh left the side shorn of some much-needed innovation.
Indeed, Nigeria, as with many of Africa’s strongest national sides, are hamstrung by the lack of a controlling midfield creator.
Nosa Igiebor’s name hasn’t fluttered around too much recently—for obvious reasons—and after fluffing his lines against Sudan and South Africa, that ship might have sailed.
Michel Babatunde might not be a natural for the centre, or the most creative, but he should be given a start in the next game and be allowed to prompt and probe as he did against Bosnia-Herzegovina and—before disaster struck—against Argentina.
What does Sone Aluko need to do to get a start for the Super Eagles?
He plays in one of the world’s strongest leagues, he’s versatile and he has that touch of guile that can settle a match—particularly at this level.
Yet he can’t seem to get in the starting line-up.
It was Aluko, after all, who scored a brace against South Africa in the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, a pair of goals that on another day would have made him an international hero. Barring perhaps Vincent Enyeama’s showing against the Republic of Congo, it was the best individual performance made by a Nigerian during the qualifiers.
After the match, one could only what might have been had Aluko, who came on as a sub in that match, started the fixture.
Daniel Amokachi—it seems—was unconvinced, and the Hull City man was again only good for the bench against Uganda.
After the 2014 friendly draw against Mexico in the United States, I criticised Stephen Keshi for trying to change too much too quickly.
When assessing players for a side, the team they come into must have at least some semblance of a regular first XI, otherwise the exercise is pointless.
These things must be done in degrees, in stages.
How can, for example Nelson Ogbonnaya seek to impress convincingly as a centre-back when the full-backs either side of him are similarly nervous, in similarly unfamiliar surroundings and similarly trying to adapt to new faces and new routines?
When everything is new, it’s hard to really get an appreciation of what’s working and what’s not. How can Anthony Ujah and Odion Ighalo, for example, be expected to strike up a working relationship having presumably only met a day or two beforehand? (Although, it is admirable the way the pair did appear to strike up an understanding.)
Against South Africa, Amokachi must alter things by degrees, not through wholesale changes. Make one or two changes, include Babatunde and Aluko perhaps, but don’t tear things up, try too many experiments or begin the rebuilding once more.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me—as other candidates fall away—that Ahmed Musa may become the chief figurehead of the Super Eagles’ revival.
Enyeama is 32, Victor Moses has become a worryingly peripheral figure, John Obi Mikel is injured and inactive at Chelsea, while Emmanuel Emenike is facing much graver concerns in Turkey.
Musa, however, features regularly in the Champions League and is a goal-scoring threat for a major club in one of Europe’s better leagues.
If the team is to be built around him, however, he must be played in a favourable position.
This is not—as my colleague Solace Chukwu pointed out—wide on the right, but rather, as a leading striker or just behind a frontman. I’d even rather see him in his previous position on the left, with licence to cut inside, than back on the right.