With the game against mighty Argentina on Saturday, June 12 at Ellis Park Stadium, the World Cup kicked off for Nigeria in earnest. Of course, we do not expect anything more than the usual sideline carping and precipitate mockery from the naysayers, but no true follower of the game is ruling Nigeria out right now after this first match. After all, the paper pundits, talking heads and football blogosphere had earlier swarmed us with
predictions of a ruthless massacre of the Eagles by the La Albiceleste and in fact, the betting fraternity had odds as long as the Wall of China! Yet, what we got, even though it’s officially a loss, is more a salute to discipline and organization than the predicted rout.
It must have surprised friends and foes alike that everyone who put on the Nigerian shirt in that game pulled their weight for 90 minutes. True, Argentina beat us; but they only did because they had man for man, mostly the better quality on the pitch. Nonetheless we did credit to ourselves with a determined display. Indeed, after watching Lars Lagerback’s men in this first competitive outing, I have reasons to believe we can win our next two group games and roll into the second round – that is if we learn the lessons of this defeat and work hard as we did against Argentina. Here is a team that had to change coach late and which didn’t have anything close to an ideal preparation for the World Cup. Here is a team that Shaibu Amodu drowned in low confidence. Here is that same team putting up a credible display against Argentina, one of the favourites of the tournament.
I am particularly happy that we did not have any Keystone Cops stuff from our defence, despite the lone goal. The problem we had was of a far wider technical nature than naivety at the back. We didn’t mark the Argentines very well and we didn’t put pressure on them as much as we should. Our zonal markings didn’t work and even though in the second half we got closer to them, it was obvious that we couldn’t keep the ball or build play from midfield. Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi had too much space to play with and it is a miracle that we weren’t punished more for this. Actually, I would have preferred playing five in midfield (because of the absence of Mikel Obi) and one upfront, at least in the first half, rather than try to match the Argentines 4-3-3 formation or play a traditional 4-4-2. This is not exactly advocating that we park the team bus or the aeroplane in front of our goal. However, considering that our job was certainly not to outplay them, but to stop them from playing and where possible try to nick a goal or more on the break, a more cagey start would have been ideal. We should have worked harder and closely to prevent any early goal, because the longer the game goes without that goal, the more desperate the favourites would have become and the more chances that we would have been able to get something from the game.
Dickson Etuhu is one of our big players, but he needs to take more leadership role. He is solid, but not inventive and in the role he plays, he holds the key to much of how we build our play. I think he is too laid back for a defensive midfielder. At 19, Lukman Haruna is not quite the finished article, but I still believe he’s the best young defensive midfield talent from Nigeria. He showed heart in this match, but he was outthought and outmuscled throughout the game. He’s obviously one for the future. The Argentines had Mascherano and the veteran Juan Veron as midfield anchormen, two men whose greatest attribute is not pace. Thus, an extra man in midfield with a little bit of pace would have neutralised their guile and caused them real problems. But again, when I look in the squad, it’s quite difficult seeing anyone with the necessary quality of a ball-fetcher, tempo-controller or natural midfield leader for the near-libero role. Therefore, to an extent, I can understand why the coaches opted for three upfront. I mean, I don’t know the facts about fitness or preparation of the players, but it would be nice to have a much more robust midfield against the pacy South Koreans. As a corollary to this, I would say our boys were poor readers of the game against Argentina. Many a time, Yakubu and Odemwingie would cross from the by-line into a vulnerable Argentina box, but there would be no midfield runners to just touch the ball and guide it into the back of the net.
One thing we also didn’t do was put enough pressure on the Argentines’ right side manned by the inexperienced Jonas Gutierrez. True, the Newcastle man has some pace about him, but he was easily the poorest ‘defender’ on the pitch, being essentially a winger playing as a makeshift right-back. Walter Samuel was in no great shape either. Perhaps if Obafemi Martins and Peter Odemwingie had started, we might have had better luck against that shaky Argentine defence. But we really can’t say. The coach is the one who has been in camp with the boys and only he and his team know who is mentally and psychologically prepared to start on the occasion. However on the evidence of second half, Martins and Odemwingie are better starting the next game than Obinna and Ogbuke. Yeah, Ogbuke is a powerful player, but he lacks mobility and vision. Odemwingie holds the ball better and brings more people into play. Another thing the coaches need to work on vigorously is our general set-piece play. Though I believe the Argentina goal came via the individual error of Obinna who couldn’t properly mark Heinze; it’s still worth noting that it came by way of a set-piece. In terms of our own set-piece attack, I think we need some others to step up apart from Taiwo. No doubt, Taiwo has a fiercesome shot, but he’s got no sense of delivery.
After all the games so far, Vincent Enyeama is proving to be the goalie of the tournament with his magnificent display against the rampant Argentines. His one-handed save against Messi shortly before the goal was world-class and so were his 14th minute snuffling out of the on-rushing Argentine, his close-range save from Higuain in the 20th minute and his last-gasp save again from Messi in the dying minutes amongst several other high-class saves throughout the game. In short, the man who saved our blushes more than merits the Man of the Match award ahead of the diminutive wizard, Messi.
Finally, I end this by noting that I have heard growls from the pseudo-patriots who think that an Amodu’s team would have done better. As usual, they’re in La La land. Though I am only a fan of football and not an expert, one thing I am convinced about is that if the boys had put in the kind of effort they put in against Argentina in the games at the African Nations Cup, we would have gone farther than the clueless Amodu took us. So, true patriots need not be distracted by this momentary setback. There is still all to play for in the next two games. If we get our act together against Greece in Bloemfontein on Thursday, then we will be back in it strongly, no matter what happens between the South Koreans and Argentina. There’s still hope, people! Let’s keep the flag flying! Let’s encourage Nigerian fans on the ground there in South Africa to raise the roof in our next game! Let’s all get behind the boys!
Soar, Eagles! Soar!