Addis Ababa -- There are far more thorns on the road to the World Cup in Brazil than many Nigerians may think. On paper, Nigeria should overcome Ethiopia. After all, Nigeria has higher profile players, better talents, and pedigree. However, let the truth be told -- the game in Addis Ababa on October 13 will be more challenging than most Nigerians expect. We believe each factor below will help decide the game as no one factor ever decides a soccer game. Here we go:
1. The Altitude -- There has been much written on the importance of altitude in international games and this is a real advantage for the Ethiopians (2400 meters above sea level). Ordinarily, teams counter an altitude disadvantage by arriving early but this is impossible as Nigerian players are mostly playing overseas and will not be assembled to make it to Addis Ababa in time to overcome the altitude. Thus, Nigeria will employ the alternative strategy of arriving just a day before the game and leaving right after. However, this will put pressure on Nigeria planning a hitch-free trip because if anything goes wrong with the planned charter flight then Nigeria may be faced with arriving too late for players to have a needed rest before the start of the game.
2. The Opponent -- The reality is Ethiopia has changed in the last two years and has steadily improved as was demonstrated at the Nations Cup except in the odd game against Burkina Faso and was demonstrated in its recent progress in the World Cup qualifiers where it overcame a forfeited game. Ethiopia has supreme confidence particularly at home and with a large home crowd egging them on. However, Nigeria is also much improved and is currently African champion team and is demonstratively better than the Ethiopians.
3. Team Preparation -- Ethiopia would have been in camp for two weeks training under game condition compared to an extremely short preparation time for Nigeria. Ethiopia will have a decided advantage on endurance with its long term training at high altitude whereas Nigeria may end up huffing and puffing particularly if Nigeria has to chase this game early. Ethiopia has the edge on preparation factor but how much of this preparation can compensate for the fact that Nigeria is the team with better players and the tag of African champion?
4. The Game Day Psychology -- Nigeria may unwittingly underrate its opponent and thus stand at a psychological disadvantage. The media prediction of a Nigerian victory and outright celebration by Nigeria after the draw was announced, point to the likelihood that Nigeria may believe that all it has to do is show up and win. If that is the case then expect a big shocker. Fortunately, Nigeria's coach Keshi is a consummate professional who will prepare players adequately and psychologically for this game. This is perhaps, the most important factor -- more important than altitude, game time, and team tactics!
5. Team Tactics -- Nigeria is a ball possession team that has used quick counters as well. Additionally, Nigeria pressures in two thirds of the field during the ball recovery phase of the game. However, because of the fact that the game is played mid afternoon and in high altitude, Nigeria may have to pace itself, reduce designated ball pressure areas, and rely more on counters than is usual. Ethiopia, on the other hand, would look to win this game and play for a draw in Nigeria. Thus, Ethiopia which also relies on ball possession with crosses into Saladin, is more likely to take the initiative in much of this game especially in the second half. Alternatively, Ethiopia may choose to control the middle and rely on crosses and set pieces without unduly exposing their area to Nigeria's quick counters. However, trying to control the middle against Nigeria will be difficult particularly with Onazi and Mikel Obi holding fort in the middle.
6. History -- The teams have met 10 times with Nigeria winning six and losing three. However, and more importantly, only one of those Nigerian wins came in Addis Ababa! Even then, that victory came in an exhibition game marking the Silver Jubilee of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in 1983. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has reigned over Nigeria by winning three of five games, including a 4-1 hiding in an international friendly on May 28 in 1992.
In Addis Ababa In Nigeria
May 4, 1968 - Ethiopia 1 Nigeria 0 April 20, 1968 - Nigeria 3 Ethiopia 1
April 29, 1983 - Ethiopia 0 Nigeria 1 July 24, 1993 - Nigeria 6 Ethiopia 0 (ANCQ)
May 28, 1992 - Ethiopia 4 Nigeria 1 March 27, 2011 - Nigeria 4 Ethiopia 0 (ANCQ)
April 11, 1993 - Ethiopia 1 Nigeria 0 (ANCQ)
June 5, 2011 - Ethiopia 2 Nigeria 2 (ANCQ)
Benghazi, LIBYA - March 7, 1982 - Nigeria 3 Ethiopia 0 (ANC)
Rustenberg, S/AFRICA - Jan 29, 2013 - Nigeria 2 Ethiopia 0 (ANC)
What Should We Really Expect?
Ethiopia has held the upper hand in Addis and Nigeria is currently the best team in Africa. What gives? I would not be surprised that this is a tight game that ends in a tie, giving Nigeria the advantage in qualifying for the World Cup finals. However, a tie will not come easily. Ethiopia will fight as the only chance it has for reaching the World Cup finals must depend on its ability to win this game in Addis Ababa and then drawing in Nigeria. The margin may not matter much, all that may matter is a result that provides Nigeria with an advantage going into the second leg.
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