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No hiding place for desperate Nigeria

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1 No hiding place for desperate Nigeria on 7th September 2014, 5:06 pm

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COMMENT: The Super Eagles got their Africa Cup
of Nations title defence off to the worst-possible
start with a 3-2 home defeat to the Republic of
Congo in the qualifiers
Sep 7, 2014 00:15:00
By Solace Chukwu
Nigeria began the defence of
their continental crown
under a cloud, both literally
and figuratively. As the game
wore on, the rain showered
down on Calabar but failed
to extinguish the smouldering train-wreck that
played out at the UJ Esuene Stadium.
The fracas at the head of the Nigeria Football
Federation and the threat of a Fifa ban hung
inexorably over the team and the contest, like a
buzzard perched on the floodlights. Off-field
distractions may well be a refuge, but for
professionals who are paid match bonuses, there
really should be no place to hide. On the pitch, the
champions played like the heart had been ripped
out of them, on a surface that looked like a fallow
potato field.
It was no vintage carpet, but to blame the turf
ignores two salient facts. First off, every football
game is contested by two teams; Congo had to play
on the same surface as well. Secondly, the venue
was not chosen by the opposition. If you find that
the majority of your players play on excellent
surfaces across Europe, then a better ground is a
no-brainer. That is, after all, the point of the home-
and-away format: to give both teams an
opportunity to maximize their comparative
advantages.
Stephen Keshi’s personnel choices from the start
seemed to further handicap the home side: the trio
of Nnamdi Oduamadi, Ahmed Musa and Uche
Nwofor had never before featured together in the
same starting XI for the Super Eagles and it showed.
Ramon Azeez was selected at the tip of the midfield
triangle again, in spite of his struggles in the same
role at the World Cup against Iran. From the bench,
Nosa Igiebor watched on. His belated arrival came
immediately preceding the fatal blow.
Keshi | Certain decisions continue to perplex
Congo played a 4-4-2, funneling passing
moves through the lanky Ferebory Dore, who had
an excellent game dropping into midfield and
encouraging Arnold Bouka Moutou to charge into
the space beyond him from the left. The insistence
of the Super Eagles’ centre-backs on sticking tightly,
even into the midfield zone, opened up space to be
exploited by the France-based winger.
The Red Devils were business-like, undeterred by a
partisan crowd and unfazed by their more
illustrious opponents. Efe Ambrose’s header to
open the scoring could have sowed doubt had the
lead not been short-lived. A shocking mix-up
between Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona
allowing Prince Oniangue to finish from a cut-back.
Congo’s second, minutes before half-time, was even
poorer, as first the entire defensive line dropped
too deep into its own penalty area from a cross,
then got bisected by the simplest of one-twos.
Thievy Bifouma was never going to miss from six
yards out.Sadly, though, for Keshi, the shocking and
rudderless display would get much worse after the
break.
The Red Devils understandably sat deeper at the
start of the second half, and the African champions
started brightly. Oduamadi produced his one
really meaningful contribution on the night, drifting
in from the right and playing a reverse pass into the
path of Nwofor. The latter fired wide from a
presentable position, his lack of club football
painfully apparent having recently been released by
Dutch outfit VVV-Venlo. He was hooked-off straight
afterwards for Emmanuel Emenike.
That miss bit back almost immediately, as the lively
Bifouma made a mug out of Elderson Echiejile and
Ogenyi Onazi just inside the box. The Lazio man
brought him down, giving the referee no choice but
to point to the spot. The French-born striker dusted
himself off and dispatched the penalty decisively.
Le Roy | The mastermind deserves a lot of credit,
having never lost a game to the Super Eagles
Onazi gave away a penalty in almost identical
circumstances at the Africa Cup of Nations last year,
against then champions Zambia. That was a game
that marked a turning point for Keshi’s team, and it
now seems the squad has come full circle. It cost
the team two points then, today it denied Nigeria
one.
Gbolahan Salami came on to make the last few
minutes interesting, poking home a rebound from a
corner. The Calabar crowd roused then; they had
never witnessed a Super Eagles loss, and had been
forced to applaud the bravery and swagger of the
Red Devils up till that point. The equalizer never
came; if it had, it would have been a massive
injustice.
Credit must go to the veteran manager Claude Le
Roy. He has never lost a game to Nigeria in his
much-travelled career on the African continent. He
stayed true to his beliefs in attacking football and
wrote a page in football history in the process. For
the first time since 1981, Nigeria finished a home
game with a loss.
This was an eminently winnable game for the Super
Eagles. The Big Boss will have to answer questions
as to why he persists in believing Ramon Azeez is
the second coming of Jay-Jay Okocha; and his
decision to start Emenike on the bench, ostensibly
for being late to join up with the squad, backfired
horribly. In truth, you could question every single
player who started the game, so irredeemable was
the performance.
Keshi must now motivate his charges: the next
challenge is a trip to Cape Town to play a resurgent
South Africa, bullish from their 3-0 win in Sudan on
Friday. If he fails to win, another page in history
may yet be written; Nigeria has never lost to South
Africa in a competitive fixture. On this showing, you
would not bet against Shakes Mashaba’s kids
upsetting the form guide.

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