The common refrain among Nigerian football fans in the aftermath of the Super Eagles’ latest home embarrassment is the diffident retort: “It’s just a friendly.”
That is undeniable, of course. However, perspective is everything, and this is best defined by purpose. The reason a 1-0 home loss to Uganda, a team ranked 29 places lower in Fifa’s ranking, can be waved away so flippantly is simply because there was never a defined objective for the fixture.
Indeed, the action on the field seemed to serve solely as the backdrop for Vincent Enyeama’s centenary cap, a landmark befitting Nigeria’s finest ever goalkeeper and one of the best in the world. Once a commemorative plaque was presented to him at half-time by the Governor of the home state, the rest of the game became an irrelevant footnote. That was until the unthinkable happened and the Cranes, who obviously did not read the script, spoilt the party. Not that it was in any way a taint on the great man, who in spite of a cruel deflection got a hand to Miya Faruku’s shot, but he obviously would have liked to mark the occasion with a clean sheet.
The last time the Super Eagles played in Uyo, it was to a full house in a debacle of an outing – the Tokelo Rantie opus. This time, the terraces were conspicuously empty: the NFF’s inability to adequately publicize a date and venue change proved a blessing in disguise, ensuring that it was a few eyes that witnessed this iteration of the “Wingless Wonders”.
The lack of clarity and focus around this fixture was clear from the list of call-ups, one which neither stand-in coach Daniel Amokachi nor the NFF’s resident poltergeist Stephen Keshi can claim responsibility for. It was a hotchpotch of contradictions and irrationality, featuring the old (and rusty) – Kenneth Omeruo, Ogenyi Onazi; the new – Moses Simon, Odion Ighalo, Chima Akas; and the returning – Anthony Ujah, Leon Balogun. This showed a lack of coherence in selection policy, a phenomenon which spilled onto the pitch.
The team’s (in the loosest sense of the word) attempts to play out from the back were handicapped by two factors: the composition and structure in midfield. Swiss-based midfielder Steven Ukoh joined Hope Akpan and Onazi in the midfield three, a trio that offers tenacity and energy, but little by way of positional intelligence or guile. Onazi sat deepest, and received the ball from the centre-backs, but his partners in the middle struggled to provide him passing angles – credit to Uganda coach Micho Sredojevic in this regard – thereby forcing him to thrash passes into the front three.
Upfront, there was little by way of understanding either – Ahmed Musa played wide on the right, a role he never quite seems to grasp, and struggled to combine with right-back Balogun, who was excellent on the night. Ujah and Ighalo have never played together, but showed a capacity to combine very quickly when the former came in off the flank quickly (unsurprising, since they are two of the most regular with their clubs). The FC Koln man spurned the best chance of the match in the first period, allowing Uganda captain Dennis Onyango in goal to telegraph his weak attempt. He perhaps had too long to think about it, but it harks back to his hapless display at the 2013 Confederations Cup against Tahiti, an outing which kept him out of the team for close to two years.
The disjointed display was to be expected somewhat; Amokachi admitted afterward that his team had only trained once. This makes it hard to make definitive assessments on this performance, but there appears to be little semblance of any sort of sea change in the performance of the Super Eagles. The midfield remains the biggest concern, highlighted by a lack of creativity or variation in pace or tempo.
This brief was given to Ukoh, but while he is a tidy player, he excels at nothing in particular and lacks assertiveness on the ball. The paucity of creative options in the middle is not a recent phenomenon, but it does make you wonder why Sone Aluko does not start more often.
The Hull City attacker has the versatility to function in all attacking midfield positions, and offers the quick change of pace and direction, if not outright creativity, that would benefit a one-paced side.
There may be no way around a lack of central creativity, but there are other ways to produce chances – indeed football is gradually moving away from this and onto the use of pace and numerical overloads as chance creators – and the introduction of another debutant, Moses Simon, showcased a tantalising option.
The Gent forward is wet behind the ears, but his eagerness to take on the opposing fullback with pace and dribbling is a rare quality in the team. Musa has pace to burn, but utilises it better running in behind the opposing defence; his dribbling is erratic at best.
Beyond the individual performances of Balogun and Simon, the former which showed just how much Keshi’s persistence with Efe Ambrose at right-back has hamstrung the team, there was little to cheer or applaud from a dire spectacle. It may have only been a friendly, but on this evidence, this team continues to go nowhere with alarming immediacy.