Monday, November 14, 2016

Post-Algeria: WCQ Records and Milestones......

Here are some milestones to watch as the World Cup Qualifiers proceed for Nigeria. Here we go:

Gernot Rohr is yet to give a debut to a player in his first three games and remains second among Nigerian coaches not providing a debut to a player in the first three games. Bora Milutinovic did not provide a debut to player in seven matches.

Kelechi Iheanacho's streak of four consecutive goals in as many games was stopped when he failed to score against Algeria. Thus, he stays (along with six others) behind the record of goals in five consecutive games currently held by both Emmanuel Emenike and Yakubu Mambo.

Nigeria's five consecutive wins is second only to six consecutive wins set under Shuaibu Amodu in 2008. The five consecutive wins is tied with five also achieved under Shuaibu Amodu in 2001.

Ahmed Musa's assist in the Algeria game gave him two assists in World Cup qualifying play tied with four other players since 1994. The four are Mikel Obi, John Utaka, Osaze Odemwingie, and Brown Ideye. The record is held by Obinna Nsofor with four.

Elderson Echiejile barely escaped a yellow card against Algeria with a first half foul that led to a talk with match official Gassama. However, Echiejile has three yellow cards in World Cup qualifiers since 1994 tied with Efe Ambrose and behind Taribo West (4) and Augustine Eguavoen (5).

Mikel Obi has now appeared in 16 World Cup qualifiers for Nigeria. That is tied with Finidi George since 1994. Mikel is still behind eight players with Vincent Enyeama well ahead of everyone with 28 World Cup qualifiers. If Mikel plays one more World Cup qualifier he will tie Osaze Odemwingie at 17. Others ahead of Mikel are Aiyegbeni, Garba Lawal, Seyi Olofinjana, all at 18. Okocha is at 20, Yobo at 22 and Kanu Nwankwo at 23.

Victor Moses' two goals against Algeria gives him a total of four World Cup qualifying goals that ties Okocha. However, he is still behind Nwankwo Kanu, Ikechukwu Uche, and Obinna Nsofor all at 5 goals. Aiyegbeni and Amokachi have 6 goals each, Rashidi Yekini has 7, and Obafemi Martins leads with 9 since 1994.  Moses' two goals in a single game is tied with eight others for the most in a World Cup qualifier since 1994. Martins has scored a brace four times in World Cup qualifying games for a Nigerian record ahead of Amokachi and Yekini who both scored a brace in two games since 1994.

Only three players have played 180 minutes in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers for Nigeria. They are William Ekong, Elderson Echiejile, and Kelechi Iheanacho.

Victor Moses has two goals to lead everyone in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Assists have so far come from three players: Ahmed Musa, Etebo Oghenekaro, and Brown Ideye.

Two players have been cautioned: Mikel Obi and Victor Moses.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Grading Rohr and the Team v Algeria....

Gernot Rohr and Nigeria took all three points against Algeria in a 3-1 win today in Uyo to extend its lead in its World Cup qualifying group. It was the team's third consecutive win in as many games under Rohr. The team clearly is playing at the height of its ability in several areas. Confidence is high and it was important against Algeria as the Algerians were desperate to take something home from the game.

However, one must acknowledge that the Nigerian team took its time to settle down and defensively Balogun provided leadership early to energize a group that seemed lethargic and in the middle it was difficult to believe that this was just Etebo's fifth game for Nigeria. He was everywhere especially in the opening half when Nigeria dominated.  Below is how the team's various units did.

GOALKEEPER: Akpeyi's state of mind appeared shaky and Nigeria was lucky that Algeria hardly tested him even when opportunities existed.  This performance is no better than a C.

DEFENSE: The defense was far from solid as a unit even though there were individuals that excelled. The wide players for Nigeria were not consistent helping in the ball recovery phase, leaving gaps for Algeria to exploit on the weak side of play. C+

MIDFIELD: Nigeria was in control of this area most of the game with Etebo as the General and his shadow was enormous both defensively and in ball distribution. Mikel, playing behind Nigeria's most advanced player, provided confidence as usual. However, the midfield organization collapsed in the second half and was largely responsible for not closing down the Algerians at the top of the box. A-

FORWARD: Going forward, Nigeria always threatened with Victor Moses but there were numerous broken plays through Iheanacho. It is clear that Nigeria's passes through the defense provides opportunities and it showed today but the hold up play by Iheanacho was not the best. B+

COACHING: Rohr's use of Omeruo was a major question going in and Omeruo's play was average. However, his presence helped provide defensive cover on the right. The introduction of Etebo in midfield as a starter was indeed a key part of the win. Then introducing Ahmed Musa in the second half to run in the space behind Algeria's attack was telling. However, the team defense still has a long way towards improvement. It defended too deep inside the box in the second half and failed to closedown Algerians at the top of the box. Grade B+.

Daniel Akpeyi (1) -- 5.9 -- This was a shaky performance for Akpeyi and twice he rushed out too early when he had defensive cover. His play just failed to inspire confidence.

Kenneth Omeruo (4) - 6.0 - He was solid defensively but gave very little going forward. Clearly, he is far from the answer at the problematic right back position.

Elderson Echiejile (3) - 6.3 - He arrived camp late but had one of his best games for Nigeria. He exploited space going forward down the left and also provided strong and confident defensive play.

William Ekong (5) - 6.0 - This was an average game for William and he appeared slow to dangerous situations at times.

Leon Balogun (6) - 6.8 - Clearly, Nigeria's best defensive player on the day. Commanded the defense from the opening minute and oozed confidence. This was probably his best performance for Nigeria dominating both in the air and on the ground.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) - 6.0 -- One of his quietest games in Nigeria's colors. However, he played within his abilities making few passing errors and stayed home defensively for most of the game.

Etebo Oghenekaro (20) - 7.2 - Etebo bossed the midfield even with Mikel on the field. This is unusual for Nigeria where Mikel had always ruled. Etebo was always available as an outlet, made right decisions with the ball, and was there to recover the ball when Algeria had possession. He was simply masterful and clearly is now a fixture in the midfield going forward.

Mikel Obi (10) - 6.5 - Mikel scored a bizarre goal when he and the Algerian defense thought he was offside and hesitated. Seeing the flag down, Mikel scored and celebrated. Television replays showed he was onside and he took the goal in stride. His overall play was confident, as usual, but tracking back was not the best.

Victor Moses (11) - 7.0 -- He scored a brace and that alone gives him a high mark. In truth, he was always a threat with the ball at his feet. He could have completed a hat trick only if he converted a very early opportunity.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) - 5.8 - Kelechi had difficulty all day playing with his back to goal. He failed to win any aerial contest and turned the ball over very easily with poor first touch. However, he did come close to scoring with a chance late from Ahmed Musa's cross but he failed to clean up the chance.

Alex Iwobi (18) - 6.2 - He started slowly but grew into the game after he switched to the right. Alex has to protect the ball better but he did show off his passing skills.

Ahmed Musa (7) - 6.2 - His blistering pace created problems in the few minutes that he was on as he exploited large swaths of space behind Algeria's attack. He made an assist on Moses' second goal and could have had a second if Iheanacho had been clinical in front of goal.

Wilfred Ndidi (21) - 6.0 -- Average play but energetic as always.

Shah Abdullahi (12) - 6.0 - Shehu was better than Omeruo when he came on. He did well defensively and also did well going forward.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Nigeria v Algeria: Ultimate Psychological Test...

With the picture of Algeria's 2014 World Cup performance still etched in our heads, it is understandable that Algeria would be feared by any team. The fact that it took World Champion Germany overtime to overcome Algeria in Brazil tells the story of a team that is quite capable. But is that really the true story of this Algerian team?

At the other end is the Nigerian team that has failed to reach the Cup of African Nations finals for two consecutive competitive cycles? The same question asked of the current state of Algeria's team must also be asked of Nigeria.

This piece proceeds to address those questions focusing not just on the teams' current state of readiness but it also takes look at plausible psychological indices that may largely determine the result of the game on November 12 in Uyo, Nigeria.

The Current State of the Teams
There is temptation to compare the two teams by looking at: (1) their current FIFA rankings where Algeria stands tall at No. 3 in Africa and well ahead of Nigeria at No. 11 in Africa, or (2) the results of their previous meetings, or (3) the general ease in which Algeria has recently handled qualification matches compared to Nigeria's performances at qualification matches. 

All three measures have their place in attempting to unpack what promises to be a galactic confrontation on November 12. But I sense that none of those three measures will matter in the end. Why? They hardly reflect the current state of either team. 

Therefore, let's look at a fourth measure i.e. how has Algeria played more recently in more appropriate and comparable situations and how has Nigeria played. Algeria will be in Uyo, Nigeria for an away international. In Algeria's last five away internationals, it has won two, drawn two, and lost one! But who did Algeria play in those five games? Two of the away wins came against Lesotho. The loss? It came against Qatar. I bet no team worth its salt will be shaking in its boots hearing names of those teams. The draws? Both came against Ethiopia.

How about Nigeria, at home, in its last five games? Nigeria has won four of those with a draw against Egypt. Again, not particularly impressive when one realizes that the wins came against none of the highly ranked African teams nor was any of those wins a blow out of the opponent.

So what gives? My answer is that similar to the previous three measures, this fourth measure will not do much for us because there have been major changes for both teams in the last few days and months. For Nigeria, the arrival of a new coach in Gernot Rohr has the team playing with a new belief signaled by an important 2-1 away win in Zambia. For Algeria, a poor home result (1-1) against Cameroon led to resignation of Coach Rejavac and appointment of Leekens who's first game will be in Uyo. Advantage? Nigeria.

The Plausible Psychological Challenges
So how about the tactical battle? Sure, tactics will matter and Leekens is likely going to focus on a defensive strategy with an eye on quick counters in search of three points or at worst a point. However, Algeria has not been a team to do this in recent times and this was partly reason for the ouster of Rejavac who called for a more disciplined approach. Nigeria, of course, would attack but under a cautionary approach, particularly in funneling the dangerous Algerian wide players to the middle where Nigeria has a reliable central defense and solid defensive midfielders. 

However, this game will hardly be decided by tactical maneuvers. The decision will come from the psychological state of both teams at various critical moments of the game. Presently, Algeria has a significant amount of self-doubt, while Nigeria come in with a nice dose of self-belief. However, neither of those psychological outlooks last eternally. They will be dynamic and would likely switch around the further the game goes on without Nigeria establishing a lead or with Algeria going ahead. Therefore, Nigeria's best bet is to score within the opening hour of the game and not to concede within that period. With the home crowd in play, Nigeria has the advantage.

Importantly, the psychological challenge is not only going to be decided by game moments and time towards goal. For individual players, there will be challenges particularly for Echiejile at left back and whoever Nigeria puts at right back. Echiejile must receive support against Mahyrez and have the ability to force him to the middle. His success in doing so early will be a bonus for Nigeria. The same issues occur for Nigeria's right back. Inability to force Algerian wide players to cut in to the middle will make crosses available and Algeria has proven deadly in the air with headers at goal.

Nigeria's early domination, which has a high probability of occurrence based on the psychological state of the two teams will be dictated through the middle and the confidence of the midfielders. With that and a lead within the opening hour, Nigeria will be on its way to three points. That is what the November 12 battle will be about. A battle of the mind and confidence.