Mexico vs. Nigeria: 6 Things We Learned
For Stephen Keshi and Nigeria, the friendly against Mexico represented a major step on the road to the 2014 World Cup.
Debate surrounding personnel and approach has raged since the Super Eagles’ underwhelming showing at the Confederations Cup and some of the toils during the World Cup qualifying programme. This contest, however, gave observers a valuable window into the manager’s thoughts and convictions ahead of the trip to Brazil.
Naturally, however, the performance generated almost as many questions as it answered. They will be considered and explored at a later date, but for now, here are the six things Bleacher Report learned from the Mexico vs. Nigeria match.
Lack of Regulars May Hurt Super Eagles
As the clash with Mexico wore on, it became abundantly apparent that some of the Super Eagles were clearly being affected by a lack of regular playing time at their clubs.
In central defence, Kenneth Omeruo has taken time to establish himself at Middlesbrough, and Elderson Echiejile has swapped regular football at Braga for a spot on the bench at Monaco.
The greatest concerns, however, involve Premier League stars John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses.
These two are absolutely central to Nigeria’s approach, and their influence and potential impact was evident at the Africa Cup of Nations in early 2013.
Since then, however, the club careers of both men have endured hardship.
Moses has been a bit-part player at Liverpool since arriving on loan, and his lack of minutes was clear for all to see Wednesday night. The forward wilted in the second half and his decision-making was questionable throughout.
Mikel, on the other hand, appeared to take too long in possession and was slow to unleash those ahead of him. The Chelsea man, it seemed, was struggling to alter his mindset from Stamford Bridge benchwarmer to pivotal creative influence.
It Takes Luck to Be a Nigerian Defender
If Wednesday’s friendly confirmed one thing once and for all, it is that one must enjoy some good fortune to be a Nigerian centre-back. The curse of the defenders continued Wednesday night.
During the Confederations Cup last summer, Kenneth Omeruo was struck down with a shoulder injury that ended up ending his season prematurely and forcing him onto the sidelines for first half of the current season. He arguably still hasn’t fully recovered his momentum.
Jospeph Yobo’s would-be triumphant return to international action, pencilled in for last night, was postponed after the Norwich man picked up a knock over the weekend.
His replacement was debutant Leon Balogun, who has been awaiting his call-up since switching his German nationality for a future with the Super Eagles.
Balogun came on as a second-half substitute but was taken off 20 minutes later following a particularly awkward collision with a pitch-side hoarding board. It was revealed Thursday, per Goal.com, that he has broken his foot and requires surgery.
The curse of the Nigerian centre-back continues, and, in all seriousness, Stephen Keshi will be hoping that he can assemble a quadrant of fit and able central defenders in time for Brazil.
Strength Between the Sticks
2014 has brought mixed fortunes for Nigerian goalkeepers. Chigozie Agbim, the side’s regular third-choice keeper, endured a torrid time during the African Nations Championship earlier in the year and was widely criticised for Nigeria’s defensive failings.
To make things worse, following the tournament, he was both released by his club side and dropped from the Super Eagles squad.
Fortunately, however, Nigeria probably don’t need to call on Agbim any time soon.
As was evidenced against Mexico, the nation’s two first-choice stoppers are of the highest order.
Vincent Enyeama, who has enjoyed such a terrific season with Lille, made one outstanding save in the first half, while his replacement, the eternal No. 2 Austin Ejide, was on hand with some crucial blocks in the latter stages.
Either man would be a credit to Nigeria this summer.
Quest for Third Man Becomes Search for the 11th
Over the last few months, one of the key issues facing Stephen Keshi has been choosing the identity of his third midfielder.
Ogenyi Onazi and John Obi Mikel became key figures in the side’s 4-3-3 over the last 12 months, but a whole host of players have tried, and failed, to complement them.
I explored the failings of the potentials for KickOffNigeria.com:
At the Cup of Nations we hoped that Nosa Igiebor would be the man we had awaited, later, Fegor Ogude was called upon as the brute to Mikel’s brilliance and Onazi’s bustle; Sunday Mba showed the light but was not the light, Nnamdi Oduamadi faded and Lukman Haruna appears to be firmly out of favour with the Big Boss.
The contest against Mexico, however, brought Keshi’s sentiment about his personnel into clearer perspective. He is not hunting for a "third man" within the midfield, but an "11th man" within a very settled first XI.
The goalkeeper and the backline pick themselves; Onazi and Mikel are indispensable, while the forward three of Emmanuel Emenike, Ahmed Musa and Victor Moses are unlikely to be dropped.
This means that Keshi is left with one component to play with.
Against Mexico, he opted to switch between 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, meaning that rather than choosing a third man in a midfield three, he took a look at Michael Uchebo behind Emenike and then Imoh Ezekiel alongside him.
Keshi has options and the kind of players who offer him a diversity of approaches. He is only one player away from a first team capable of travelling to the quarter-final.
The Value of the Diaspora
Ahead of the Mexico clash, Stephen Keshi decided to once again dip into the Diaspora in an attempt to bolster his playing options.
For a coach who has built his reputation upon his tendency to ignore the big names and large egos of superstars and place his faith in local stars, Keshi has also developed a knack for getting the best out of young Nigerians based outside the country.
Ogenyi Onazi has come from nowhere to become one of the finest defensive midfielders in Africa under Keshi’s tutelage, while Emmanuel Emenike and Ahmed Musa have also seen their development accelerated under the Big Boss.
The latest clutch of Europe-based stars to be brought into the fold ahead of the World Cup include Almeria’s Ramon Azeez, Fortuna Dusseldorf defender Leon Balogun and Jupiler League pair Michael Uchebo and Imoh Ezekiel.
Uchebo was the least well-known of the quartet ahead of the friendly, but after some fine movement and impressive footwork, he has emerged with his reputation greatly enhanced. The forward’s showing once again reminded viewers of the immense talent buried within the Nigerian Diaspora.
Calls for Uche Will Not Be Silenced
Ike Uche has been one of Europe’s deadliest strikers so far this term. The Villarreal forward has thrived in La Liga, one of the globe’s top divisions, and has scored 12 goals in 13 starts for the club this season.
Despite this, he is still overlooked by Stephen Keshi, who is both unhappy with the striker’s poor attitude during the Cup of Nations in 2013 and remains unconvinced that Uche is a good fit for his current tactical approach.
There is some merit in this latter suggestion and, indeed, it is hard to see the poacher Uche running the channels and playing with the power and pace of Emmanuel Emenike.
Over the last 12 months, however, Nigeria have struggled in front of goal, and once again their finishing let them down on several occasions.
Considering the weaknesses of certain squad members—not least Shola Ameobi, who has made a career as a non-goal-scoring forward—can Keshi continue to overlook Ike Uche?