Perhaps the title was a false honour for a team that hadn’t really been considered favourites ahead of the tournament. Perhaps we expected too much from a young side that was still coming together during that magnificent run to the Johannesburg final. Perhaps opponents raise their game when pitted against the rulers of Africa.
The subsequent months have been – to say the least – underwhelming.
Only a late, late Nnamdi Oduamadi equaliser spared the blushes against Kenya in March. The World Cup qualifying clash in Calabar was meant to be the triumphant homecoming for Stephen Keshi’s side, but Nigeria looked stodgy and uninspired against much weaker opponents.
It was a similar story in the return leg in June, when only a late Ahmed Musa winner prevented another lacklustre draw. Against Namibia a week later, defender Godfrey Oboabona was the saviour as his late rocket secured a point against the plucky home side.
Nigeria won some plaudits for their Confederations Cup campaign, when they came close to unsettling Uruguay, and bothered Spain with their progressive approach, but the truth is that the strikers selected by Keshi weren’t quite up to the demands of international football.
It is rare indeed that a 6-1 victory is greeted with criticism and questions, but Nigeria’s stuttering display against the amateurs of Tahiti showed up the inadequacies of the likes of Anthony Ujah and Joseph Akpala.
Those two have now been discarded as Nigeria look to Saturday’s crunch qualifier with Malawi, doubtless with an eye ahead to the prospect of next summer’s jamboree in Brazil.
In truth, their qualification from a fairly routine Group F should have been over long before this point, even before their newfound status as continental darlings.
With the three other teams in the group taking points off each other, Nigeria have had numerous occasions to seize the initiative and leave the others out of sight. It simply hasn’t happened, and thus the group’s conclusion boils down to the Malawi clash on Saturday.
The Super Eagles have a Keshi-era precedent for tomorrow’s all-or-nothing fixture. A year ago, they conceded a lead against Liberia in Monrovia during an Afcon play-off. The consequence was a straight shoot-out in Calabar, with the winner earning the opportunity to head to South Africa.
Buoyed by the home support and lifted by a crucial early goal, Nigeria were rampant and ended up putting six past the beleaguered Liberians.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Four months later, the Super Eagles were continental champions.
Keshi will be hoping for a similarly dominant performance tomorrow. The attack looks infinitely stronger for the returns from injury (and thus to the starting line-up) of Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses. The pair were instrumental during the Cup of Nations and were sorely missed over the summer.
Who knows what difference they could have made against Uruguay and Spain. Alongside them, on the right side of Keshi’s 4-3-3 formation, will likely be Ahmed Musa, a Russian League winner with CSKA Moscow last term. The young forward is a player of immense promise but he perhaps showed his naivety at times during the recent Confederations Cup. He will surely be harbouring hopes of making a major impact at next summer’s showpiece.
The aforementioned Oduamadi, who impressed against Tahiti before his Confederations Cup was curtailed through injury, is another who could take one of the attacking positions.
The midfield three will consist of the majestic John Obi Mikel, the side’s talisman and pace-setter, alongside Ogenyi Onazi, the terrier, a youngster with excellent anticipation and terrific energy. The pair dovetail superbly, with the younger, dynamic Onazi a delightful foil for the more lethargic, measured Mikel.
The third man in the midfield could be one of three players.
A domestic wrangle between his Nigerian club sides past and present has derailed Sunday Mba’s year and the midfielder has often appeared to be a shadow of his former self since impressing so explosively at the Afcon.
During the tournament in South Africa he replaced the misfiring Nosa Igiebor, however, the Real Betis man has overcome a difficult start to life in La Liga to rediscover some of the form that made him such an exciting prospect. A recall to the squad suggests that Keshi intends to attempt to unlock this esoteric talent, even if it may be more trouble than it’s worth.
Academica’s midfielder John Ugochukwu is another option, although, while he has been training with the team ahead of tomorrow’s match, he looked lightweight and off the pace at the Confederations Cup. It is a showing that may count against him.
The defensive unit that has served Keshi so well will be retained with slight modifications. Kenneth Omeruo is out with injury and this will allow the imposing Azubuike Egwuekwe to rekindle his fine understanding of 2012 with Godfrey Oboabona.
In goal, Vincent Enyeama has seemingly fumbled one too many times for Keshi. The Big Boss tried to integrate Austin Ejide into the national side ahead of the Afcon, only for the Hapoel Be’er Sheva stopper to suffer an injury. He impressed against South Africa in the recent Mandela Challenge match, however, and may well receive the opportunity to displace Enyeama in a competitive fixture this weekend.
This contest will likely be a tense, nervous affair. The Super Eagles could really do with an early goal to both alleviate the pressure on themselves and dispel the inevitable murmurs of the Calabar crowd.
Score quickly, and a spot in the play-offs could become a misty reality. Stutter, as they have done all too often since February, and it could be a day to forget.
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