Friday, March 22, 2019

QUICK TAKE: The Win over Seychelles ...

The reality is that a win over Seychelles was expected even though Nigeria had already qualified and had no real or major stake on this game except pride and respect. Seychelles felt the same way, having been eliminated from contention. What was left to wonder about was whether Nigeria would score enough to set a record in margin of victory over an opponent. As things stood after today, Nigeria could not erase the 1959 record of a 10-1 victory over Dahomey. That record remains standing! Instead, the 3-1 victory was the result of this game against a vastly inferior opponent. In many ways, the result, the game, and the effort were all deeply troubling.

Early on, Nigeria huffed and puffed and its players unable to find any meaningful solution to the deep defensive wall put up by the visitors. The Nigerians tried to find the holes with passes but slow possession and inaccuracies defined results. Then they varied that with long passes over the defense but the passes were too long to be latched onto by the forwards. It was indeed a travesty watching Nigeria struggle. 

Then in Nigeria's defense, goalie Uzoho's performance was so poor that Rohr must now question why he has stuck with Uzoho for so long. Akpeyi and Ezenwa were benched for lesser miscues than was seen today in Asaba from Uzoho. The difference is, perhaps, that Uzoho has European club credentials. That must count for a lot. Yet, a Nigerian team full of players with European credentials had an especially difficult time against a bunch of amateurs from one of the weakest footballing nations in the continent. Perhaps, Rohr has to think about that.

The game, as awful as it was, was opportunity for players such as Wilfred Ndidi and Henry Onyekuru to demonstrate quality. What was missing is that very few of their colleagues showed any such inclination. Even when Rohr sent in two tall payers -- Onuachu and Ajayi to take advantage of crosses against the resolute Seychelles' defense, it was still not good enough. After this, Rohr's period of being above criticism has most certainly expired. It is now open season, most likely.

Here is the rating for players involved in the game.

Rating: 1 - 10 scale. 6 = Average.

Francis UZOHO (23) --5.0 -- His performance today may be the worst ever seen by a Nigerian goalie in a competitive international. He was on vacation most of the day but any modicum of a Seychelles' opportunity must have sent Nigerian fans near a heart attack. Eventually, Seychelles' goal was a harmless free kick that the Nigerian defenders could have taken care of but Uzoho intervened and entirely missed the ball to allow a surprised Seychelles' forward to sore the easiest of goals into an empty net.

Abdullahi SHEHU (12) -- 6.0 -- He did not seem quite comfortable. He gave up unnecessary free kicks when challenged but he did make effort going forward.

William EKONG (5) -- 6.4 -- Not much pressure today but helped with some long balls and had a weak header easily saved by the goalkeeper in the opening half.

Kenneth OMERUO (22) --6.4 -- Omeruo did not do much except mimic Ekong with the long passes when the short passes were not opening up the channels.

Jamilu COLLINS (3) -- 6.5 -- He was very active down the left joining the attack. Eventually, assisted in Onyekuru's goal with a long lofted pass from the left.

Wilfred NDIDI (4) --7.5 -- Perhaps, Nigeria's best player with effort and thought. But this was against Seychelles!

Oghenekaro ETEBO (8) --7.0 -- Etebo did put in the effort and had several attempts at goal before he was taken off.

Ahmed MUSA (cpt) (7) -- 6.8 -- Musa put in maximum effort against a massed defense but some of his final passes were not good enough but still he was one of the better players on the Nigerian side.

Alex IWOBI (18) -- 6.2-- Alex seems to have difficulty protecting the ball. He turned it over several times today before he eventually went off.

Henry ONYEKURU (11) --7.0 -- Henry started today and was one of the few shining lights on this team. His goal in the second half was a deserved result from a good afternoon.

Jude IGHALO (9) -- 5.5 -- A step slow. Had a very poor touch early in the game with the goalkeeper at his mercy. Yes, he continued his scoring streak but his overall performance was nothing to celebrate.

Moses SIMON (15) -- X -- He was on the field for just a few minutes and scored but not enough  minutes to warrant a rating.

Paul ONUACHU (10) -- 5.8-- There was nothing remarkable about Onuachu's play. He needs to do more before anyone would consider him as likely to make the AFCON squad.

Semi AJAYI (13) -- 5.3 -- Semi had an awful few minutes on the field. Gave up unnecessary fouls and then turned the ball over when a pass was much easier. Nothing much else to state about his play.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Is Nigeria Africa's Best?

One of the most difficult African football questions is whether Nigeria is Africa’s Best. This question often arises because of the frequency of Nigeria’s representation of Africa at the World, its performance at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), and the claim that it is a country brimming with talented players. At one time, an Italian journalist made a claim that Nigeria would have long won the World Cup in the 1990s if Giovanni Trappatoni was Nigeria’s coach. Well, let me attempt to answer the question as best as I can.

The Population Question
There is belief that Nigeria’s population of 208 million and counting, should certainly project it as a dominant footballing country in Africa. After all, every six African one statistically is a Nigerian. With such ratio, one can understand why it often appears that there are significant numbers of upcoming footballers available to the country. Moreover, being dominant at Africa’s youth competitions (U17 and U20) justify the conclusion that such dominance should also occur at the most senior level.

The population argument is tenuous. Beyond the mention of Brazil to support the large population social theory, the point falls on its face when India, China, and Indonesia are added to the debate. None of those three is considered a footballing power. To be sure, beyond Brazil, none of the top 10 most populous countries has won a World Cup. Of course, you may argue that football is not the preferred sport in places like India, Pakistan, and the USA. But how about Russia, Mexico and, of course, Nigeria? So what’s the problem?

It is likely, based on logic, that a large population may provide a pool of significant number of football players in a footballing country. However, because the number of players who can be on the field is limited (among other factors that matter in football), it should not take hundreds of millions for a country to produce 16 lads needed to form a formidable team. That limitation equalizes the playing field for countries with significantly less population size, including those in Africa competing against Nigeria. This is a rudimentary argument, if you ask me, but yet important to dissuade those who may erroneously think that every added million to a population is equivalent to an increase in football ability.

Might It be the Coaches?
Just like the claim that Giovanni Trappatoni would have taken Nigeria to a World Cup win is the assumption that a good coach would assure Nigeria’s domination in Africa. There is little doubt that a good coach is important to a team’s fortune. But consider that the law of normal distribution of population supports the probability that only a few coaches, in the world, can significantly change the fortune of a team. These are super coaches who are outliers in the distribution of all coaches. Nevertheless, even super coaches must have talented players to be successful. In any case, the reality is that winning requires more than a good coach. Over the years, Nigeria has played under reasonably good coaches who may not be the super coaches of this world. Nevertheless, they helped Nigeria win games in Africa just as similar coaches helped other countries win the World Cup.  Thus, it is not a certainty that even the most excellent coaches of the World will assure a World Cup win. What they can assure is probability of positive results but in a particular critical game, they could lose.

How about Football Administrators?
The capability of football administration is certainly one of the most talked about issues concerning Nigeria’s national team. Historically, persistent shoddy administration of the team led to disruption of preparations and concentration. However, in recent years, administrators treat the team with respect and effectiveness. One could argue that among Africa’s teams, the Super Eagles team has been better administered in the last few years. Yet, while this has led to a recent World Cup qualification, it has not led to winning an African championship or winning every game against African competition.

Is it, Perhaps, having players at the Top 5 leagues in Europe?
Although, engaging European football coaches is considered a marker of having a good coach by African teams, increasingly having players based in Europe’s Top 5 leagues have also become a marker of talented players. In recent years, Nigeria has most of its footballers playing outside its borders. But it may sometimes take a back seat to the likes of Senegal and Ghana who often have more eligible players in the Top 5 European leagues – England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France.  Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal are often favorites at the AFCONs but some teams win the competition without having players in the top 5 European leagues. For instance, the Zambian team that won the Africa Cup in 2012 had only four players playing outside outside Africa and none of those was in the Top 5 league. Their opponent – Ivory Coast – had 11!  In fact, not a single member of that Ivorien squad was playing in Africa, let alone in Ivory Coast. Yet, it was Zambia that took the trophy.

Is it the local league?
There is another school of thought that claims it is about whether your local league is top notch. Essentially, your top players are playing at home in their local league like Spain, England, Germany, and Italy, among others. However, best French, Brazilian, and Argentine players do not play at home but those countries are still regarded among the best teams in the world. Thus, this proposition is illogical, at best, but it persists. France won the 2018 World Cup with key players, except Mbappe, who were not playing in the French Ligue 1. Croatia, the runner up, had just 2 of 23 players playing at home and neither of those two was a starter on the team. There goes the idea that it is the local league. How about winning the AFCON when you have a top local team?  Well, the last four winners are Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Zambia. None of those countries has a league that has produced a club to win the African Champions League since the last 15 years! None has ever produced a club that won the less prestigious African Confederations Cup!

So what is it, then?
If none of the arguments explains what it takes to dominate Africa and make a significant impact in the world, what then does? First, let us be clear that Nigeria has not been meek in its performance. Winning three AFCONs is not a small feat. Getting to that point took effort and some things had to work. Nigeria is a country that could not be counted among the top 10 in Africa when it began playing in the late 1940s. Though Nigeria was at the Olympics in 1968 and won the Africa Games soccer in 1973, Nigeria never came unto its own until the mid-1970s. That it was a foreign coach – Father Tiko – that was responsible is instructive but for a surprising reason. The difference was his tenure. He was there in his third year when he took the country to a third place finish at the AFCON. Others, including local coaches had shorter tenures. Also, he benefitted from a newly introduced national league that better prepared players with frequent high level contests that produced two top teams in the continent – Rangers and Shooting Stars. When the country won the Cup in 1980, it still had dominant clubs in Africa and it was playing at home. In 1994, it won again but with a team that begun to depend on European-based players, a situation that bred confidence even in games against teams outside Africa.

The reality is that the factors are multiple and none, independently, assures a trophy. Working integratively, however, they can assure consistency at the top. But that situation cannot assure consistency only for Nigeria. There are other teams that can earn similar consistency, simultaneously with Nigeria, if they do they right things. Thus, trophies cannot be dominated solely by Nigeria. What Nigeria can reasonably hope for is consistent performance at the top. That isn’t far from what is happening today.

But surely, Nigeria can and should be able to win more in the continent by strengthening multiple areas. One of those is a consistently stable administrative policy of full support for the national team and less interference, a more stable coaching regime and team, among others. If, somewhat, Nigeria appoints one of the very few super coaches that could be the icing on the cake. It could lead to far more consistency but Nigeria regularly sweeping the AFCON cannot be expected because the competition is and will always be stiff. Yes, Egypt may have swept the AFCON for three straight competitions but that is a lucky blip that is a rare occurrence and cannot be guaranteed.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Absurdity of Nazi-like Salute in Nigerian Football

There is a peculiar salute that some NPFL teams give to their supporters during NPFL games. While one may suppose that this very salute is contrived, it remains unclear to me. I state contrived because of how many NPFL teams have appeared to use this visual greeting. However, the extent of their informed use of it is largely unknown. Nevertheless, its existence not in the action of just one team but in actions of several has to be a concern for those who supervise the local game. For avoidance of confusion, the salute is reminiscent of the abhorred Nazi-style salute for which Germany under Adolf Hitler became widely associated. It is a case where a hand is extended from the neck and trust straight up front and above the neck. This salute and the Nazi swastika have been banned in several countries. In places like Germany such a salute could attract a prison term.  But it isn’t just Germany. It is a criminal offense in much of Europe including France, Austria, and in then as far away as in North America and specifically Canada. A recent such salute by a Greek player, Giorgos Katidis of AEK Athens, led to his life ban from the Greek national team (See Photo).

Germany using Nazi salute in the 1930s

                            Giorgos Katis uses the salute that attracts lifetime ban in Greece

In Nigeria, this salute or something akin to it, which is seen in NPFL stadia and photos, is a time bomb waiting to explode. Let the wise be warned. Public relations, not just locally but globally, is better done proactively than reactively. Thus, as the old folks say A Stitch in Time Saves Nine. In essence, the NPFL administrators must work to stave off this dangerous time bomb by educating both the clubs and players. There are other creative visual greetings, inoffensive ones that they can surely use to acknowledge their fans. There is no need for the Nazi-style salute as a visual demonstration of greetings to fans in Nigeria or any place else and wherever. It is particularly worse for any African team to be associated with this practice considering the Nazis and their racial classification, which was no friend to Africa and its peoples. To now adopt a salute of the Nazis, who adopted the infamous scientific racist theory of Arthur de Gobineau, is as disgraceful as it is embarrassing. Importantly, this very salute and some modification of it is now being orchestrated and propagated by racist groups and neo-Nazis worldwide.

 Heartland FC players using Nazi-like salute in NPFL game

MFM players using Nazi-like salute in NPFL game

Of course, there are those who may think little of this. They may claim that these are young men simply enjoying life and they mean no harm. However, image is important and it goes a long way. If the young men do not understand fully the meaning of such symbols then the administrators do or at least should understand it. The international outrage that could develop from this visual image could be so rife that none of the administrators may survive its outcome. No Nazi symbol should be acceptable and certainly never in Africa. Enough stated for the wise.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Stock is Up, Down For These Super Eagles Players...

With Nigeria headed back to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), after being absent for two consecutive tournaments, it will be one of the most anticipated participation at a tournament for the national team. Of course, most of the focus will be on the team's performance and results considering that Nigeria won the AFCON at its last participation back in 2013 under the late Stephen Keshi. However, with so many new players emerging during the qualifying games for this tournament, there will be a major fight for spots. Then there is the prospect of a few returning veterans who did not play a game at the qualifying stage. This sets the stage for a focus on playing personnel.

Based on the above situation, it is time to begin periodic evaluation of players and continue this assessment until the matches begin in the summer in Egypt. This first evaluative piece will look at some selected players and determine who has, at this time, made a case to be in the squad if it is picked today (Stock Up). Also, the piece will look at a few who are on the outside looking in because they have declined, at this moment, and face a likelihood of missing the cut if the squad is to be selected today (Stock Down). Here we go:

Stock Up (é)

Samuel Chukwueze: Chukwueze, still under 20 years old, is the emerging star for Nigeria. In the past year, he has risen from reserve football to starter for his club at Villarreal in the Spanish elite tier. He has already earned an appearance for Nigeria. His performances for his club has definitely improved his stock and with a few more games for Nigeria, he is surely looking up to a place in the squad headed for Egypt.

Samuel Kalu: If any player benefitted from the retirement of Victor Moses, that player is Samuel Kalu. He has replaced Victor Moses seamlessly and very few Nigerians miss Victor. Kalu has not only replaced Moses but he has demonstrated versatility by playing very well when asked to feature at wingback in Nigeria's 3-5-1-1 formation against South Africa late last year. He is looking up to easily making the squad if the team is picked today.

Kenneth Omeruo: Kenneth Omeruo has not quite fulfilled the promises that some believe he showed at the 2013 AFCON. However, his current performance is pointing his arrow towards being one of the AFCON veterans returning to the tournament with Nigeria next June in Egypt. Kenneth is playing solidly with his Spanish club at Leganes, just outside Madrid. If he continues with this level of play, then he may not only be assured a spot in the squad but he is likely to be fighting for a starting spot after a year when he started off as the fourth option at central defense.

Odion Ighalo: After the 2018 World Cup, many Nigerians screamed for Ighalo to be banned from the national team after being fingered as one of the reasons Nigeria failed to go beyond the group phase. However, the coach stood with Ighalo. Instead of replacing him, Coach Rohr started him in the first game after the World Cup. Ighalo responded with an explosion of goals that has foisted him into one of the first to be on the list to Egypt if the team is selected today. At his club, he also exploded with goals to mark a remarkable resurrection of a fallen star.

Stock Down (ê)

Onazi Ogenyi: Onazi, for long Nigeria's deputy captain, has been a solid starter at defensive midfield. However, he is one of those who lost their position due to poor play just before the World Cup. Onazi has struggled to regain that position and a major injury at his club by the end of the year has put him into a position where several other competitors moved past him. He now faces the prospect of missing out of the squad for the AFCON with a steep hill to climb to recover.

Ola Aina: Ola Aina is a controversial pick here given that he is one of few Nigerian players doing quite well at his club AC Torino. However, Aina has been an enigma since his debut for Nigeria at a World Cup qualifier against Zambia two years ago. He has been remarkable for his club but it is a different story when in Nigeria's colors. He was handed a start, on account of Shehu Abdullahi's injury, in one of Nigeria's most recent games (v Libya) but did not exact authority. With increasing competition at both wide back positions and Tyronne Ebuehi's return from injury, Aina may find himself on the outside looking in when the AFCON list emerges.

Kelechi Iheanacho: Kelechi was supposed to be Nigeria's prince of soccer following the U17 FIFA World Cup back in 2013. He showed the promise early with goals at both his club then (Manchester City) and Nigeria. However, that seems ancient history. In the last year, Iheanacho's stock has plummeted. His play has been poor for Nigeria and it will not be a surprise if he does not make the list to the AFCON in Egypt. This situation could worsen if the likes of Victor Osimhen get  more deserved test runs with the national team.

Daniel Akpeyi: Daniel Akpeyi has been jittery when given the opportunity by Nigeria. Yet, he has remained Nigeria's No. 3. With Nigeria's No. 2, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, moving to Katsina United in order to assure himself more games and with the national Manager Gernot Rohr steadfastly scouting goalkeepers at foreign clubs, it is likely that Akpeyi may face the axe before the AFCON in Egypt. The fact that Akpeyi was not given a start in the South Africa game when Uzoho was unavailable due to injury and that Ezenwa, clubless and failing to play games, was used instead tells the story.

Moses Simon: Moses Simon has gone from starter to reserve in a space of two years or so. But even then, he was used for a change of pace off the bench until he sustained an injury before the World Cup. After the World Cup and the retirement of Victor Moses, analysts believed Simon would regain a starting position. It did NOT happen. Instead, he was not named in match day squads in a couple of AFCON qualifiers. This means that a deluge of competitors at the wings have moved past him and that spells doom for Moses Simon as the AFCON approaches.

In Essence

The list above defines what possibly could happen in terms of players who will or will not make the Nigerian squad list as the 2019 AFCON approaches. Just like the stock market, the stock of each player in the national team will experience ups and downs as we move towards the AFCON in June. Some of the players whose stock may be down now may experience resurgence before the AFCON and vice versa for those whose stocks are up currently. Thus, we intend to revise this list as the tournament approaches.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

2018 ANNUAL REPORT: An Unremarkable Year for Nigerian Soccer

This is the third year of an annual report on Nigeria's soccer but it is also a largely unremarkable year. Nonetheless and like in the previous years, we categorize Nigeria's football into youth football, women football, local elite football, football administration, and the Super Eagles. Each unit is graded in terms of its annual performance. Beyond grading each unit, we delve deeply into the national team to grade its annual performance, unit by unit, before finishing up with recognition of some outstanding performers.

We begin by grading each of the five units already identified above.

Youth Football
Youth football demonstrated some life after horrendous recent years. The U20 team did reasonably well in playing some qualifying games and also reached the final of the WAFU for U20 players recently. The U17 won its WAFU zone for the continental qualifiers. These accomplishments restored hope in the sector but it is far from the great heights of youth football that Nigeria had frequently experienced before recent lean years. Grade C+.

Women Football
The Super Falcons retained their African Championship in Accra but then was inactive most of the year which is a blot against women football in the country. Although, the U20 team participated at the World Cup in France, it was dormant for the rest of the year. In France, the team did not go far, losing to Spain, but it expressed renewed hope after poor outings in recent years. Worse still, the Flamingoes (U17) lost to Cameroon at the African qualifying stage. Although the Falcons are African champions, the poor state of women football in the country leads to a grade of B-.

Local Professional Football
This year's competition was chaotic, ending in the 24th week with 14 weeks left to play. Lobi Stars, leaders at that point were then slated to represent the country at the 2019 African Champions League. The Federation Cup was hurriedly played. These events has forced the decision not to relegate any teams and then to promote four teams from the lower rung, creating 24 teams at the elite level in the upcoming season. This unwieldy number of teams helped force a two-zone league of 12 teams each for the next season. To make matters worse, the fact that only Enyimba out of four representatives at the continental level went beyond the early stages of African competition meant Nigeria lost the private of sending four teams to continental competition. This number has been to cut to two next year. Grade C.

Football Administration
Things have gone from bad to worse. 2018 was full of crises with FIFA threatening to suspend the country following intense internal strife with the Federation's building periodically under security siege, among other problems. Internal squabbles with the Sports Ministry led to starvation of funds and football officials dragged to investigations commission. On the field, a previously banned Kogi United mysteriously was allowed to participate in the Federation Cup without public explanation. Grade C.

Super Eagles
The national team, Super Eagles, did not have a spectacular year. It was at the World Cup but was eliminated at the Group Phase, failing to go into the Round of 16 for the third time in six appearances at a World Cup. It was disappointing. However, the team quickly revived to qualify for the finals of the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Importantly, under Manager Gernot Rohr, the team has increasingly focused on recruiting players who were largely developed outside Nigeria from the youth stage. Grade B.

Here are analysis of team units and their grades:

Goalkeeping: Francis Uzoho emerged as the team's undisputed starter but it is clear that he has to still improve in several areas to gain the confidence of Nigerian fans. His height provides assurance in the air but while his decision making has improved, there are still moments when it has been questionable. His reserves -- Ike Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi -- are capable goalkeepers but also have more downsides to them when in goal for Nigeria. Grade B-.

Defense: The defense has not conceded much under Gernot Rohr's tenure it seems but that is not to state that this defense is beyond reproach. The center of the defense can be challenged as was the case in a few games in 2018. At the wide areas, it appears that even Coach Rohr is not satisfied with the personnel in those positions. Since the World Cup, he has found another starter at the left and on the right Shehu Abdullah's position remains contested. Grade B.

Midfield: This may have been Nigeria's most stable unit but that was until the World Cup in Russia. At the World Cup, the decision to go to a  3-5-2 formation forced major changes especially with the team's key players -- Victor Moses and Mikel Obi -- forced to play in much deeper positions that they had been accustomed to in the national team. After the World Cup, Alex Iwobi has emerged as the choice for the advanced position and Samuel Kalu was introduced on the right and Jamilu Collins currently the choice on the wide left in a 3-5-2. Grade B-.

Forwards: The introduction of Ahmed Musa as striker reinvigorated the team and began to present scoring opportunities than had hitherto been rare. His speed clearly is an asset. In addition, the erstwhile disappointing striker Odion Ighalo erupted after the World Cup and this has made this position an asset instead of the dud. Grade B.

Bench: The introduction of new players has begun to solidify the bench and assure that the absence of any starter would not be felt in future games. The team is slowly building the type of bench that has rarely been seen on a Nigerian national squad. Grade B+.

Coaching: Coaching has been disappointing in certain cases and commendable in others. For instance, the World Cup results were disappointing with the team failing to go beyond the group phase. The decision to keep the coaching team in spite of the poor results was the right decision. The crew came from behind to earn a ticket to the AFCON 2019 after Nigeria failed to reach the last two AFCONs. Furthermore, the crew also is slowly building a strong squad of both starters and bench players. Grade B-.

Outlook for 2019: 2019 promises good results for the national team, particularly at the AFCON where Nigeria returns after winning the 2013 version. For the first time in several years, Nigeria will be a favorite, along side Morocco, to win the trophy. The youth team, U17 , is likely to reach the World cup finals and promises to be among the medal state with Coach Manu Garba at the helm. However, the outlook is not all rosy. The female national teams have been largely neglected and other African teams, better prepared, are increasingly becoming better on the field against Nigerian women teams. Nigeria's U20 male team, largely made up of elite league players and possible age cheats, does not inspire confidence.
With grades of C+, B-, C, C, and B for the Nigerian teams in 2018, the overall grade for Nigeria football is a C+.  Obviously, this is disappointing and the lowest that Nigerian football has earned since these annual reports began in 2016.

2018 Team Data
The national team had its lowest efficiency score since 2016 when the annual report began. Most of the six losses in the year came in the build up to the World Cup and then two losses at the World Cup. However, the team has recovered since and looks forward to better results in 2019.  the data table appears below.

2018 Individual Data
The individual data are included in the Table below and compares data across the three years of the Annual Report. Ahmed Musa made the most appearances and also led the team in assists with three. Orion Ighalo with a post-World Cup explosion of goals led in 2018 with six goals. William Ekong, playing one less game than Musa, led all players in minutes played with 1035 minutes.

Ahmed Musa is Nigeria's Best Male Player in 2018. He clearly was the most dangerous Nigerian player at the World Cup and has been the leader post World Cup. There really is no close competition based on on-field performance in 2018 playing for a Nigerian team. On the female side, goalkeeper Tocrukwu Oluehi was the impact player for 2018 with  Francisca Ordega a close challenge. Samuel Kalu is one of several new and exciting male players in the national teams. He gets the nod because of his superior exploits at the senior team level. Naming the best team and best coach is difficult. However, Falcons (Female national team) is named best team for winning the African Championship yet again, this feat has not been achieved by any other Nigerian team in recent years. However, that is not enough to crown Falcons' coach Deanery as the coach of the year. He has not improved the Falcons and does not appear to be the difference-making coach that Nigeria may have hoped it hired.  Instead, Manu Garba who is currently building a U17 team that could match any of the previous top U17 teams gets the nod as the best coach. The emerging stars are U20 female goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie and Super Eagles' Alex Iwobi. Nnadozie's exploits at the World Cup clearly makes her more recognizable as a growing female star. Iowa has been in the Super Eagles for a while but his exploits in 2018 has marked out out as a key player for the team.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nigeria Earns Tie and Qualifies for AFCON 2019

Nigeria earned a deserved 1-1 tie with South Africa in Johannesburg, earlier today, to reach the African Cup of Nations finals for 2019. Despite missing several starters, due to suspension and injuries, Nigeria made its way to the finals for the first time since it took the trophy in 2013.

Also for the first time, Gernot Rohr, out of necessity offered his rarely used 3-5-2 against an African opposition. However, his plans to soak up the midfield by adding an additional player in the absence of regulars, who ordinarily would have strutted out in midfield, met with very little success. It did create opportunities in quick breakaways especially early in the game when Ahmed Musa threatened to be a handful for the South African defense. Besides those moments, the midfield was dominated by South Africans who bossed the space with 57% possession.

But for all South Africa's huffing and puffing, it was Nigeria that had the much better opportunities.  this seems to be the frequent case in Nigeria v South Africa games. But in this game, Nigeria will rue two controversial calls that perhaps denied them victory. Musa had sped past the defense in the 7th minute, off an Iheanacho pass, but was wrongly ruled offsides as the television replays showed. Then with eight minutes left on the day, it appeared that Musa had scored off an Iwobi pass but again the goal was overruled as offsides in an extremely close situation.

Nevertheless, the reality was that South Africa's Percy Tau (10) was giving Nigeria's defense fits with his technique, quick turns, and decision making. It was he who turned Omeruo and Ekong to finish with an exquisite pass that tied the game after Nigeria had gone ahead in the opening half. Clearly the best player on the day, in the second half he turned his attention to terrorizing Nigeria's defense on both the right and left side and on a second half move he exchanged passes easily, eliminating both Balogun and Ekong, but Ezenwa rushed out to save the day (69th). 

The rating for Nigeria's team on the day is provided below:

Ikechukwu Ezenwa (1) -- 6.2 -- He was hardly troubled all day as the defense did well to keep South Africa off serious opportunities. He conceded the only goal to the home team in a situation that no goalie could have solved with his defense in tatters.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.2 -- Balogun had a strong game but nothing spectacular. He survived a hold that could have led to a dangerous free kick near the box in the second half.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.2 -- This was not an eventful day for Ekong. Although, he was also turned in the spectacular South African goal but otherwise he had a quiet day in the office.

Kenneth Omeruo (22) -- 6.3 -- Omeruo was embarrassed by a Percy Tau turn that led to South Africa's goal. Otherwise, he had a strong but eventful day chasing the dangerous Tau. He missed a good opportunity to put Nigeria ahead from a Kalu set piece with an unchallenged header deep inside the box (75th).

Samuel Kalu (17) -- 6.4 -- Kalu had a reasonably good game playing wing back and made a last ditch sliding save early and it was his powerful cross that forced South Africa to concede the own goal that put Nigeria ahead.

John Ogu (19) -- 6.5 -- Ogu was calm and sprayed passes with far more accuracy than any of his midfield colleagues. However, his lack of significant mobility meant that Nigeria could never compensate for the absence of both Onazi and Ndidi.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.2 -- Etebo is a busy bee type of player but sometimes his decision making can be questionable and that was the case today. He never really imposed himself on this game.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.4 -- This was not his best game by far. He probably turned the ball over more than any of the Nigerian players and sometimes with very little pressure. At times,  he was lively but that was only in periodic spurts. However, Rohr's confidence in him may have kept him on for almost the entire game when a substitution may have been a good option. Perhaps, the failure to do this underlined how thin Nigeria is at his position.

Jamilu Collins (3) -- 6.2 -- Jamilu did reasonably well both defensively and offensively but he had difficulties, at times, attempting to keep in check Tau on the wide right.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi was slow and is perhaps getting slower. He had a gilt-edged opportunity off a pass from Musa, in the opening half, that he spurned because of a poor touch that led to a turnover. He was correctly taken off midway into the second half.

Ahmed Musa (cpt-7) -- 6.8 -- Although he faded in the second half because of tiredness, Musa was a handful for the South Africans much of the first half. One thing about this player that has been greatly underestimated is his penchant for making passes that lead to goals. Today, Iheanacho could have been a beneficiary of one of such passes.

Isaac Success (13) -- 6.0 -- Isaac was anonymous most of his 22 minutes on the field and did not impact the game.

Henry Onyekuru (11) and Semi Ajayi (20) because of less than a quarter of an hour in the game.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

With Uzoho Absent, Who Protects Nigeria's Goal?

It seems ages ago when Nigerians did not blink because a regular goalkeeper was injured. That was back during the era that Nigeria's three choices -- Vincent Enyeama, Augustine Ejide, and Dele Aiyenugba -- were all of international standard and each of them could be counted on to do a masterful job. However, that is now ages ago. Today, even the regular goalkeeper -- Francis Uzoho -- does not instill much confidence among Nigerian fans. This is in spite of the fact that Uzoho has clearly improved from his low point recorded during his first few games for Nigeria.

But with Uzoho ruled unavailable (due to injury) for a crucial AFCON qualifier in a few days in South Africa, the question about who replaces him is now critical. There are three goalkeepers invited for the contest -- Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, and Theophilus Afelokhai. In the paragraphs below, we share our views of each of them.

Ikechukwu Ezenwa
Ezenwa is Nigeria's second choice between the posts going by recent events. He was the man who stood in for Uzoho in a recent international in Monrovia (v Liberia) when Uzoho was unavailable. Ezenwa was third choice after Carl Ikeme exited the team on account of illness back in 2016 but Ezenwa soon rose to first choice after Akpeyi's poor performance. Ezenwa was often spectacular in the 2018 World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon but his poor play thereafter opened the door to Uzoho. Ezenwa has the most appearances (26 apps/conceding 0.46 per game) among the three goalkeepers available for the South African game largely because he is first choice for the home-based national team. On his good day, Ezenwa is a good shot stopper but struggles with crosses and can be rash with last ditch tackles against attackers that break through his defense. More troubling at this point is that he is not first choice at his club where he sits on the bench as No. 3 behind both Afelokhai and Fatau Dauda at Enyimba. His lack of match fitness could cost him the opportunity to start in South Africa if Coach Rohr maintains his outspoken believe that only match fit players should play in important games.

Daniel Akpeyi
Akpeyi is, perhaps, the most derided Nigerian player in recent memory. His antagonists are, arguably, overboard in their assessments of Akpeyi who continues to be a key player for his club -- Chippa United in South Africa. But Akpeyi's demeanor in goal, his frequent errors, as well as indecisiveness in cutting off crosses give his antagonists fuel for criticism. Worse still, Akpeyi has a statistic that sticks out like a sore thumb for Nigeria. In 10 games, Akpeyi is still to complete a game without conceding at least a goal (1.25 per game). Those are considered telling! He was considered unquestioned Nigeria's No. 2 goalkeeper behind Ikeme from 2015 to 2016. If Akpeyi had held his own end of the bargain after Ikeme fell ill in 2016, Akpeyi would have been Nigeria's No. 1 choice today. But he failed to do so. Now he is battling to keep a No. 3 spot, behind both Uzoho and Ezenwa. However, as fate would have it, he is again dealt with gold coins on the table. At familiar turf in South Africa and with match fitness in his favor, he is possibly the front runner to be between the posts for this upcoming game v South Africa. If Rohr calls his name as starter, would he engrave his name as No. 2 choice going forward? That is on the cards in South Africa. 

Theophilus Afelokhai
Afelokhai is no spring chicken. He has been a top local goalkeeper for more than a decade in Nigeria with a famed tenure at Kano Pillars. Though he is yet to make an official appearance for Nigeria, he is still considered one of the best at the local scene and has become the first choice at Enyimba where Ike Ezenwa sits on the bench. His match fitness should be a strength going into the South African game but Akpeyi has match fitness as well. Importantly, coach Rohr has his only principles which he appears to hold onto religiously. One of those principles is his belief that a foreign-based player, more often than not, is better than a Nigerian-based player.  This is perhaps one unstated reason why Uzoho, with very few first team appearances at his club, was catapulted to Nigeria's first choice over Ezenwa just before the World Cup. To counter Uzoho's lack of experience, Rohr detailed a goalkeeper coach to prepare Uzoho but did nothing of that sort for the locally-based Ezenwa. The point here is that Afelokhai will be nothing but training fodder in this upcoming match. It will take a miracle for Afelokhai to be between the posts in South Africa. That is as certain as day and night.

Therefore, the real choice here is between Rohr's current No. 2 Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi who has the match fitness advantage that Coach Rohr has often put forward as a principle that he uses in selecting players. Thus, the Gernot Rohr's decision has to be about sticking with his conservative decision to use the next player in rank (Ezenwa) or to give the reins to the guy who is match fit (Akpeyi). What gives? We will see in South Africa.