Nigeria Fail To Fly As Old Frailties Hunt Keshi

The Super Eagles did avoid a second consecutive defeat in Cape Town, but they weren't able to pick up the victory against South Africa.

There is a comfort to be had in the fact that some things remain the same. Seasons will change with regularity; difficulty and ease will alternate with agonising randomness; but come what may, Nigeria will never lose a competitive game to South Africa. 

If you are of the glass-half-full persuasion, this is a sufficient crumb of comfort. A day will surely come when the hoodoo is broken, but that certainty is as remote and intangible as doomsday: simultaneously drawing closer and coyly dancing tantalisingly out of reach. 

Two qualifying games have yielded a point, eked out with the toil of unskilled labour. Who would have thought, when the draws were made, that the Super Eagles would finish their September engagements hanging-on agitatedly to a point away to Bafana Bafana?

Respect is something that comes with sportsmanship, but while no one expected a cakewalk, no one anticipated the sorry slog that ensued in Cape Town. 

Stephen Keshi copped flak for his selection against Congo, so this time he did the obvious thing. All three substitutes contributed positively against the Red Devils, so all three started here. Gbolahan Salami played on the right of the front three, while Nosa Igiebor took Ramon Azeez’s forward playing role from midfield. Emmanuel Emenike was included as a straight swap for Uche Nwofor.

Let us consider each department of the team.

Nigeria managed to improve from their performance against Congo, but it wasn't enough to beat Bafana Bafana

The defence looked no less secure than it did against Congo. Kenneth Omeruo was a standout performer, going about his task with characteristic calm. Beside him, Godfrey Oboabona looked cumbersome; Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile were shaky in the fullback positions; and Austin Ejide did the little he had to with minimal fuss, pulling off one massive save late on. 

As always, Ogenyi Onazi and John Obi Mikel anchored the midfield. There was a twist, however. The Chelsea man noticeably sat deeper than usual, allowing Onazi to play slightly further forward. Whether this was a deliberate ploy by Keshi or a reaction to the game situation is not clear; the result though was that it allowed Mikel receive the ball in deeper areas (away from the pair of Andile Jali and Dean Furman, who were superb for Bafana Bafana) where he had time to look up and pick out passes.

Eventually though, the South Africans got wise to this and started to close him down, often very aggressively. 

Igiebor’s inclusion was the major talking point, and he was one of the brightest players in the first half for the Super Eagles, before fading badly in the second. He came short to receive the ball, and also did a good job of sprinting forward to join the attack. He met Ahmed Musa’s knock-down in Nigeria’s brightest play of the first period, but was unable to make the right contact with the ball. 

The front three failed to click as a unit, and only Musa had a good game individually. He offered an outlet for the team’s attacks from his high position on the left, and also came into the centre whenever Emmanuel Emenike vacated it, as is his wont. 

The question was: what role exactly was Salami supposed to be playing? He is a very similar sort of player to Emenike, pace allied to power. A player such as Sone Aluko, who has the ability to drift into the centre intelligently and act as a connector between midfield and attack would surely have been more useful. 

The Hull City man would make a belated entrance with less than a half-hour to go, and he showed his ability in flashes, offering calm and quick thinking. Osaguona Ighodaro also came on to good effect and had a header from a Musa cross cleared off the line by Eric Mathoho. 

With major questions in every department, it little wonder the team played so poorly. Indeed, the goalless outcome is testament to the fact South Africa were not outstanding themselves, though they did play some very good transitions in wide areas. That said, they were not the ones who needed the win. 

It is only logical to seek answers, and within reason to start at the doorstep of the man who has been charged with overseeing the team.

Stephen Keshi, in refusing to leave while the ovation was loudest (or at least before it began to recede) has sullied the legacy of his spell as Super Eagles manager. Growth was expected following an impressive Afcon win, but there can be no rational claim that the team has done anything other than regress. 

It is not completely his fault.

The country’s football brass has busied itself chasing its own tail and barking at shadows, leaving it too exhausted to provide the kind of platform that is surely a must for a team of Nigeria’s stature. However, to ascribe it all to the politics of Nigerian football is to be wilfully blind. 

Keshi has had this group since before the Afcon in 2013, but has been devilled by much the same issues over the intervening period. It is easy to take solace in the familiarity of old landmarks, in much the same fashion Nigerians are comforted to know they have the upper hand over South Africa any time of day. However, that was 19 months ago. While it may seem ruthless to say a manager is as good as his last result, how about this for a stat: Nigeria have managed one win in its last 11 matches. 

All of those games have been managed by one man. This is a record that barely stands up to scrutiny. Stats do not always tell the whole story, but is a minor miracle that he is not more questioned. It feels almost like someone has pulled a fast one on 170 million people. We have been introduced to Keshi, the stubborn, fiercely loyal man-manager. Perhaps now, we can see him in a new guise: the master of sleight-of-hand. 

Source: Goal
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