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Following the conclusion of the African Nation’s Championship where the Home-based Super Eagles won the bronze medal, the attention of Stephen Keshi-led technical crew has shifted to preparations for the 2014 World Cup campaign, writes Olisemeka Obeche.
Stephen Keshi’s coaching credentials and rating as reigning African gaffer has come under review once more after leading Nigeria’s ‘Home-Based’ Super Eagles to a third-place finish in the 2014 African Nations Championship hosted by South Africa. Barely a year earlier (in February 2013), Keshi had led a relatively underrated Super Eagles to winning the 29th edition of the African Cup of Nations in the same South Africa.
Although the bronze medal won by the team is less than what Nigerian football fans had yearned for – the CHAN trophy – Keshi insists the tournament was a huge success for the debutant Home-based Super Eagles. “I think deep down that we’ve had a good CHAN. Considering the odds against them, the pressure and expectations, I’m extremely proud of their attitude and professional discipline,” an elated Keshi said.
The ‘Big Boss’, as he is fondly called, explained that he achieved the main objective of taking the team to the tournament. “The major goal for me [in South Africa] was to expose the players and see if I can get two or more players to take to the World Cup in Brazil in five months’ time. I am happy to say that I have really gotten some,” he said.
But the skipper and first choice goalkeeper of the Home-based Super Eagles team for the tournament, Chigozie Agbim, was apologetic on the team’s inability to win the ultimate prize. Agbim said that in line with the expectations of millions of Nigerians, the Eagles went to South Africa “with the intention of winning the championship, but we could not make it”. According to him, despite narrowly missing the chance to win the trophy, the team took consolation by the fact that it won the bronze medal, the ‘Fair Play’ trophy and the ‘Most Valuable Player’ of the tournament.
The CHAN litmus test
There is no doubt that CHAN was a litmus test for the Home-based Super Eagles. Indeed, the soccer battles that eventually earned the team the bronze medal were not easy. When the Eagles filed out for its CHAN debut match against the Eagles of Mali that fateful Saturday night of January 11, the unexpected happened: Nigerian players, after an uninspiring performance, lost by 1-2. The debut defeat, christened the ‘baptism of fire’ by analysts, ended the Super Eagles’s undefeated streak against African teams under Keshi, sparking a fresh debate over technical and tactical competency of the team’s handlers ahead of the World Cup finals.
But Keshi was quick to diffuse tension, blaming the opening match defeat to Mali in Cape Town on ‘stage-fright’ and pressure from home rather than tactical flaw. He promised that the team was poised to fight for qualification from the remaining two games.
Expectedly, following the defeat on ‘Match Day One’, attention of many football followers turned to the Keshi-led technical crew to see if it truly possess the technical savvy to qualify Eagles to the quarter-finals. True to his promise, Keshi and his technical team rallied Eagles to second straight victories, beating Mozambique and South Africa 4-2 and 3-1 respectively to secure a quarter-final showdown with Morocco.
However, nobody anticipated that Keshi’s ‘acid test’ of the tournament would be the Quarter-final clash against the Atlas Lions of Morocco. After a largely lack-lustre half an hour play, the Super Eagles’ defence line caved in, conceding three goals in seven minutes – 33rd , 37th and 40th minutes respectively to hand the Moroccans a hefty lead before half-time. But the game took a dramatic twist in second half when the Super Eagles upturned the three-goal-deficit to beat Morocco 4-3 after the extra time.
Hard-fought goals from Ugonna Uzochukwu, Rabiu Ali and Ejike Uzoenyi in 49th, 55th and 90th minutes respectively forced the game into extra time with 3-3 all score. Abubacar Ibrahim’s goal which he scored four minutes from end of 120 minutes ensured Nigeria reached another milestone in football under Keshi. Asked to explain the magic he conjured up to turn the tide of the game in the second half, Keshi attributed it to half-time pep-talk. “In the second half I wanted to see different character, I wanted to see the same character that we brought into the Bafana-Bafana game, or more. So they came in and they said, we are not going home, we want to be here for the final, and that’s what happened”.
To most analysts, the quarter-final triumph against a formidable Moroccan team affirmed Keshi’s reputation as one of Africa’s football strategists of this generation. “You can see that the Big Boss rejuvenated the team’s ball distribution and attacking formation in the second half, and this afforded the likes of Ejike Uzoenyi and Abubacar Ibrahim to make destructive runs that opened up Moroccan defense and allowed Nigeria to score the four goals”, Chris Emasodje, a local football coach said.
However, the semi-finals clash against Ghana’s Black Stars, many predicted would end in Nigeria’s favour turned out a nightmare as the Super Eagles lost the opportunity to play in the finals after an uninspiring penalty shoot-out. The Eagles had looked pretty much the better side throughout the duration of the encounter but the Ghanaians, with a highly organised defensive formation proved impregnable for the free-scoring Nigerian team that scored 12 goals en route to the semi-finals.
And for failing to score against a resilient Black Stars, reduced to 10 men in the 64th minute following Kwabena Adusei’s red-card, the Super Eagles paid the price for their lackluster performance as they lost to Ghana during the penalty shoot-out at the expiration of 120 minutes of the regulation and extra time.
Expectedly, Keshi who took the credit for the tactical switch that culminated in the come-back defeat of Morocco was equally blamed for the Super Eagles failure to overrun Ghana in the semi-finals. “The fact that Eagles could not score a single goal in a game that it controlled during the entire duration of two hours and Keshi failed to fashion a tactical approach that can break-down the Ghanaians actually exposed his deficiency”, argued Cliff Nneli, a football analyst.
Those who frowned at Keshi’s tactical approach in the penalty loss against Ghana were almost vindicated when the Eagles failed to utilise their scoring chances against Warriors of Zimbabwe in the losers’ (third-place) finals until Chinonso Obiozor scored the lone (winning) goal five minutes from end of regulation time for the Super Eagles to earn the bronze medal. “The fact that Zimbabwe played more than 70 minutes of the match with one man down (following a red-card for midfielder Masimba Mambare for a high boot into the shoulder of Nigeria goalkeeper Chigozie Agbim) and yet Keshi and his crew members could not exploit the advantage to score goals underscores his deficiency in spotting opponent’s weak-points,” Nneli said.
But other commentators including Kayode Odulami and Ibeleme Godwin insist that Keshi was not responsible for the team’s wastefulness in front of goal or failure to exploit opponents’ weak-links. “The coach provides game plan as well as tactical instructions but it is left for the players to execute the job well or not. And what happened during the semi-finals and third-place matches where the Eagles failed to turn their numerical advantage into goal-scoring opportunity just boiled down to how players carry out their master’s task when it matters most”, Odulami, operator of a popular viewing center in Lagos told TheEconomy.
However, Ibeneme blamed late preparations for the failure of Eagles to reach the finals. According to him, Keshi had only three weeks to put up a team of new players, which by far, was the best team in the competition; while Ghana used negative football to stop Nigeria. “The team would have been able to deal with such defensive style of play better if they had been together earlier than they did. Don’t forget, Keshi lost some of his established players prior to the tournament to foreign clubs or injury,” Ibeleme said.
World Cup expectations
Keshi seems to have returned from CHAN with his credibility intact despite failing to reach the finals. While Keshi used the CHAN as an experimental tournament for his World Cup campaign, how the Super Eagles fare in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this summer would determine if he can be truly counted among the best football managers.
“The World Cup is the biggest stage in football and it is there that top players and coaches show how good they are. A lot is expected from Keshi in Brazil because he has been with the team for some time now and should know how best to deploy them to get desired results”, Nneli said. It was gathered that Keshi’s game plan for the World Cup is to use four of the stars he discovered at the CHAN, including Uzoenyi, the MVP of the tournament along with the foreign-based professionals.
With Nigeria’s World Cup expectations already high, analysts have identified a few grey areas that the Keshi-led crew needs to work on ahead of the Mundial. Notable tactical lessons required by Keshi and his crew, according to Mr. Justus Ugboru, include ability to discover opponent’s tactical flaws and exploit them; meticulous defensive and midfield formation that can provide fluidity for quick offensive and defensive play as well as effective execution of dead-ball opportunities, especially free-kicks, corner and penalty kicks. “It is equally expected that Keshi should take further lessons in the art of tactical formations and substitutions which are crucial for winning or drawing matches,” he said.
Other analysts believe Keshi has a pool of talented players to assemble a great squad capable of squaring up against the best in the world in Brazil, but he could be in a dilemma on how to select the best players. “Presently, Nigeria has a bunch of quality players at home and abroad but the challenge remains the politicisation of national team selection”, lamented Mr. Akinwunmi King, a football fan.
Now that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has declared that it won’t interfere with Keshi’s team selection ahead of the World Cup and has equally pledged total support for the team’s preparation, King argued that, the onus lies on the technical crew to assemble the right crop of players that can do the nation proud. “He must find ways of instilling in the Eagles that killer instinct that can enable the team crush their opponents. That requires picking the right players and game plan that can bring out the best in the team as well as making necessary tactical switches as and when due,”. King submitted.