Nigeria’s defeat to Uruguay in their crucial Confederations Cup Group B clash brought the Super Eagles crashing back down to earth. While their 6-1 victory against the amateurs of Tahiti in their opening game generated quiet confidence back in West Africa, fans have been under no illusion, the team would be judged on their performance in this game and almost this game alone.
The Islanders provided very little challenge, despite being plucky in attack, and almost felt routine for the Super Eagles; Spain, on the other hand, are World and European champions, and defeat against La Roja would bring no surprises, little disappointment and perhaps few lessons for Stephen Keshi’s team.
Uruguay, however, was the match—winnable but against top-end opposition—where Nigeria could demonstrate their improvements and their assured progression to the world.
While they managed to overcome the faded Golden Generation of Cote d’Ivoire en route to the African title earlier this year, this current crop of Nigerian stars are yet to truly test their mettle against an elite side.
Africa’s giants have been underperforming and almost all addled with internal conflict recently, enough so that they have provided a reduced threat. The Confederations Cup offered a genuine opportunity for the world to judge the progress of Keshi’s work and to assess the quality of the Cup of Nations holders ahead of next summer’s World Cup.
The early stages provided cause for concern.
It was Uruguay who shot out of the blocks quickest. Oscar Tabarez’s side pressed vociferously in the early stages and looked keen to make a swift impact on the tie.
They were rewarded inside the first 20 minutes.
Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani combined well from a set piece before the ball fell to Diego Lugano. The veteran centreback fluffed his lines spectacularly from six yards out, but a kind deflection still managed to divert the ball past Vincent Enyeama into the Nigerian goal.
Impressively, Nigeria rallied after their ignominious start. The contrast between the first 20 minutes and the next 20 were marked.
The Super Eagles began to play football—and actually did it rather well. Almost immediately, the Uruguayan defence looked horrifically vulnerable and Fernando Muslera found his goal coming under siege.
Ahmed Musa’s pace was a regular terror to his opposite number, fullbacks Elderson Echiejile and Efe Ambrose looked progressive and eager to impress, while John Obi Mikel demonstrated his class and composure at this level by taking control of the midfield. The Chelsea man gradually began to run the show, creating space with a number of delightful touches and spreading the ball to delicate areas with a number of choice passes.
All of a sudden, the Super Eagles had wings and Keshi’s tactical approach became apparent.
Can Nigeria beat Spain and qualify for the semifinal?
It wasn’t long before Mikel—the emotional heartbeat of this side, the Madame George to Nigeria’s Astral Weeks—found an opening.
The central midfielder darted forward, past the lolloping Lugano and after some delicious footwork, pinged the ball past Muslera into the Uruguayan goal. It was a finish that even the most accomplished forward would be proud of, and Mikel looked every bit the No. 10 his shirt identified him as.
The midfielder’s conversion from attacking prodigy to defensive anchor man under Jose Mourinho has been lamented in some corners, with many Nigerians regretting the conditioning and neutralising of a potentially devastating attacking prospect. Here, however, Mikel gave a glimpse of the stunning attacking talent he might have been.
As the half wore on, Nigeria’s attacking continued rigorously, but the side were unable to find a breakthrough. Their failings cost them after the break, when Forlan, making his 100th cap for the national side, demonstrated his sustained quality by firing a rocket past Enyeama after some smart linkup work from Cavani and Luis Suarez.
It was a cruel blow for the Eagles and one from which they never recovered.
As the second half wore on, Uruguay offered little further threat, Nigeria regained the composure and authority that had been their reserve in the first half but once again were frustrating up front.
Despite knocking Tahiti for six, this current collection of Nigerian forwards have come in under major scrutiny and some unswerving criticism. The attack has been clearly identified as the Super Eagles’ weakness and is one Keshi has failed to address during this competition.
Ideye Brown and Anthony Ujah have rotated the central attacking berth over the last four games, but neither has managed to cement his authority on the position. Ideye was recalled against Uruguay following Ujah’s blunt outing against Tahiti but struggled to make an impact, aside from some wildly optimistic efforts.
Musa has pace and promise but has appeared too impulsive and impetuous at times in recent fixtures. Milan forward Nnamdi Oduamadi bagged a hat trick against Tahiti and has looked dangerous in his international outings to date but was removed through injury here—an unfortunate blow for club and country.
His replacement, Michael Babatunde, struggled to impact proceedings. While the Cup of Nations hero Sunday Mba has seemingly suffered a crisis of confidence—or form at least—since the AFCON triumph.
How invaluable, therefore, could the injured pair of Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike have been this summer? The pair were architect and executioner respectively of the victory in South Africa, and their absence has been felt keenly by the Super Eagles.
Without them, a certain verve and fluidity is missing from the forward lines—some indifferent attacking displays have resulted.
Keshi and Co. will be acutely aware that with defeat to Uruguay, their easiest route out of Group B has vanished. Nigeria will now need to get a result against World and European champions Spain in order to progress from the group—the monumental nature of this task need not be explained to anyone who has kept even a cursory eye on international football over the last five years.
Nigeria have not done themselves a disservice this tournament; the vim and vigour, as well as the progressive attacking football, has been admirable, even if the goals haven’t flowed as freely as one might have hoped.
Super Eagles fans can be proud to have a team that wants and looks to play football, even against accomplished opposition such as Uruguay, and they can be quietly confident in looking ahead to the World Cup next summer.