Africa’s World Cup qualifying changes gear this weekend as the 10 group winners go head-to-head in a series of highly anticipated play-offs. As champions of Africa, Nigeria will be expected to overcome unfancied Ethiopia and claim a spot in Brazil next summer. The squad is strong and littered with match-winners, although the forward line remains a point of concern.
Nigeria’s summer outing at the Confederations Cup in Brazil was characterised by bluntness and inadequacies in attacking positions. Stephen Keshi will surely not settle for such sustained failings, particularly in this a World Cup year.
As the clocks count down toward football’s premier occasion, international managers become twitchy. The pressures upon them, heaped there by fans and national federations, grow as the demands of success become ever sharper. No one wants to miss out on a spot at Brazil, and no one wants to be the team that arrives there underprepared and underrehearsed, only to fall down at the first hurdle.
This is a reality that Nigeria fans know only too well.
In 2010, the Super Eagles were one of several African sides expected to make a big impact in the continent’s first World Cup. Things didn’t go to plan, and after a series of underwhelming outings, the Nigerians returned to Lagos with their tails between their legs.
Keshi will be keen to avoid such a dispiriting disappointment next summer and will be doing everything in his power to ensure that his team head to Brazil as prepared as they possibly can be.
This young Super Eagle side is one with many strengths; their goalkeepers are bold, their defence is competent and their midfielders are diverse. During the Cup of Nations earlier in the year, one could feasibly have suggested that their strikers were a dynamic and devastating bunch too—but subsequent performances have revealed weaknesses in Keshi’s elect.
Shorn of key contributors Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike at the Confederations Cup earlier in the summer, the Super Eagles floundered. Tahiti may have been hit for six goals, but it could (and should) have been so much more had the islander’s sieve-like defence been breached with greater proficiency.
It still feels slightly perverse to ramble on and criticise a 6-1 victory, but anyone witnessing Anthony Ujah’s hapless and stuttering outing that evening will sympathise with my qualms.
The substandard offensive displays continued during the subsequent two group-stage fixtures. Uruguay could have been beaten had Ideye Brown and Ahmed Musa chosen to seize the day.
The former showed himself to be all energy and perseverance but with a fairly poor notion of where the goal actually was; the latter has undoubted promise and is certainly a forward of some pedigree (if one considers his emphatic displays in the Russian Premier League), but is still at a worryingly formative stage of his development.
It was a similar story against Spain.
The Super Eagles were—generally—impressive against the world and European champions. They showed themselves to be unaffected by the names and reputations ahead of them, and strode gallantly into action, taking the game to La Roja and attempting to rattle the Spaniards.
A 3-0 defeat failed to do justice to the Super Eagles’ efforts, particularly the sterling work of full-backs Elderson Echiejile and Efe Ambrose, centre-backs Godfrey Oboabona and Azubuike Egwuekwe, and midfielders John Obi Mikel and Fegor Ogude.
It could all have been so different had Ideye and Musa been prepared to make the most of the chances that came their way, had Mohammed Gambo—likely to be remembered solely for his miscue—not missed a straightforward chance when the goal beckoned or had Joseph Akpala decided to realise the hopes of a whole clutch of international coaches and finally put his talents to good use for the Super Eagles.
Akpala, like the aforementioned Ujah, has not been invited to compete in the Mandela Challenge, and like No. 1 contenders emphatically KO’d, he dropped to the bottom of the chasing pack.
Who is Nigeria's most lethal attacking threat?
The situation will surely be alleviated by the returning Victor Moses and Nnamdi Oduamadi.
Chelsea man Moses was one of the AFCON heroes. He saved the day against Ethiopia in the group stage, having won and converted two penalties, and then demonstrated his class in the knockout rounds, particularly in the rout of Mali.
He brings searing pace, direct running and clinical finishing as well as a big-match mentality and not inconsiderable nous. As one of the finest forwards in Africa, he is primed to make a big impact next summer if his imminent season can match his last.
Oduamadi is one of a handful of players who have made claims for inclusion since the Cup of Nations triumph. He justified his selection in a World Cup qualifier against Kenya with a late crucial goal and continued in this vein at the Confederations Cup.
An impressive outing against Tahiti—where he appeared to be the only forward possessing the ability to finish—set him up for an exciting tournament, but he was forced to bow out after suffering injury against Uruguay.
Still only 22, he has a bright future and will look to integrate himself fully into the first team over the coming months. Adriano Galliani’s plan to involve Oduamadi in the Milan first team following his Confederations Cup triumph may have been shelved, but a loan spell to Brescia will give the talented player valuable game time ahead of the World Cup.
The inclusion in the squad of two men whose international careers have, at points in the past, looked finished, is intriguing and shows that Keshi is pragmatic enough to break away from his model of young, hungry players in order to achieve balance and success.
Shola Ameobi was a Cup of Nations call-up, but his ultimate participation was prevented by a clause in his contract with club side Newcastle United. Now cleared to compete, he will be hoping to make up for lost time and to cap an unremarkable career with an outing at the World Cup.
Victor Obinna has struggled to realise the promise that accompanied him during his early career at Chievo and Internazionale and, like Ameobi, has developed into a worryingly goal-shy forward. He is, however, versatile and will relish the chance to prove himself once more.
A veteran of two AFCON tournaments, Obinna will be aware that opportunities such as this will not come about too often. Both men need only consider the example of Obafemi Martins, who has not made a case for himself over a number of recent call-ups and is now well and truly exiled from Keshi’s thinking.
These men will all walk out onto the turf against Ethiopia next weekend with the image of next summer’s World Cup blazoned indelibly on their minds—it is, after all, the ultimate motivation.