5 Things Stephen Keshi Should Test in Nigeria's Friendly with USA
Nigeria’s World Cup preparations to date have been somewhat confused. On the pitch, the side have been solid and have drawn their last four matches, 0-0 against Mexico and Greece and 2-2 against Scotland and Italy.
Off the pitch, however, debate has raged with many questioning the wisdom of Stephen Keshi’s squad selection. Several established internationals were jettisoned late on leaving a number of inexperienced and unproven players manning the squad’s back-up positions.
Saturday’s match against the United States is Keshi’s final chance to put the disharmony to bed with a strong performance.
What follows is my five-point plan to how the Big Boss should approach the friendly and how to ease some of the concerns about his selection.
Assess the Defensive Plan B
The injury to Elderson Echiejile is threatening to undermine Nigeria’s World Cup preparations. Stephen Keshi has chosen a squad lacking established cover at full-back, with Juwon Oshaniwa, who hasn’t played since February 2013, and Kunle Odunlami, nominally a centre-back who has had little exposure to the senior set-up barely tested at the top level.
Against the United States, Keshi needs to truly understand the capacities of the back-up options he has chosen. Throwing all of them in at once risks leading to disjointed performances, but perhaps some measure of experimentation is required against the United States.
One option could be assessing Kenneth Omeruo at right-back and bringing Joseph Yobo back into the centre of defence to partner Godfrey Oboabona. This would mean pushing Efe Ambrose over to left-back, but the Celtic man equipped himself well in this role for the second half against Greece and might be a better option than Oshaniwa.
Give Ramon Azeez a 2nd Cap
Despite making only one brief substitute appearance for the Super Eagles to date, against Mexico in a friendly earlier in the year, Ramon Azeez was included in the Nigeria World Cup squad.
Stephen Keshi has travelled to Brazil fairly light on midfielders, with only Reuben Gabriel and Azeez as back-up options in the centre. This feels almost reckless considering the relative inexperience of the two men and the abundance of options (Joel Obi, Nnamdi Oduamadi, Nosa Igiebor, Sunday Mba, Lukman Haruna, Fegor Ogude and John Ogu) to have been either discarded or overlooked in recent times.
Gabriel has rarely looked like a realistic option, while few Nigeria fans would be completely confident to see Azeez called into action in Brazil with only a handful of minutes to date. The contest with the United States provides Stephen Keshi with a perfect opportunity to both give the Almeria man his first start, and to assess him alongside Ogenyi Onazi and John Obi Mikel in the midfield.
Examine Odemwingie on the Right
Peter Odemwingie’s long-awaited return to the national side has, to date, been a little muddled. The Stoke City forward returned to a hero’s welcome against Scotland at Craven Cottage and looked impressive with some fine movement and excellent touches.
Against Greece, however, his first start since 2012, the former West Bromwich Albion man was played out of position.
He was played centrally, behind Emmanuel Emenike, charged with linking the midfield and the attack. This role didn’t play to his strengths and he often found himself confusing things in the congested midfield zone, watching on as Ahmed Musa sent wayward cross after wayward cross into the stands.
It should be Odemwingie who operates on the right. While crossing is perhaps not a major strength, he can thrive in this position, interacting with the powerful Emenike and profiting from the scoring positions he will likely find himself in.
Play Uchebo Behind Emenike
Michael Uchebo has proved to be a divisive figure among Nigeria fans, despite making only three half appearances for the national side.
Half of the Super Eagles supporters consider Uchebo to be a clumsy player, lacking ideas and little more than a bundle of energy. The other half (myself included) believe that he is a physically impressive specimen who has the potential to add a sprinkle of something special to the final third.
Raw, he may be, but in a side not blessed with oodles of creativity, Uchebo can be a difference-maker for the national side.
Ahmed Musa’s injury concerns provide Keshi with the perfect excuse to turn to the Cercle Brugge forward as an exciting addition to Nigeria’s starting XI.
Allow Moses to Enjoy a Free Role
Victor Moses’ two finest performances in a Nigeria shirt came during the 2013 Cup of Nations last January.
In the first, against Ethiopia in the group stage, he menaced as a winger, using his direct running and explosive pace to great effect to unsettle the opposition defenders. It was little surprise that Moses won (and converted) two penalties for his side in the match’s latter stages.
Against Mali, in the semi-final, however, Super Eagles fans saw another side of Moses.
As Nigeria romped out as 4-1 winners, the Chelsea man was influential, dropping deep, spinning wide, bringing others into play and, at times, dictating the Super Eagles’ creative approach.
He was a revelation—an intelligent and measured player, as well as an intuitive one.
Against Greece, in the recent friendly, Moses appeared to have a point to prove following a disappointing season on loan at Liverpool.
Despite starting on the left flank, he was everywhere, moving horizontally behind the striker, arriving on the right, and through the centre, unsettling the Greek back line and creating space for his compatriots.
Moses needs to be afforded this liberty against the United States to prove, once again, that he is capable of being an influential figure for the Super Eagles against testing opposition.