For the second time of asking, controversial perennial coach of the Flying Eagles Ladan Bosso has qualified Nigeria for the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations set for Egypt early next year. Despite being labelled a failure in certain quarters, the task before Bosso was indeed daunting.
He had to overcome late preparations to then attempt to overcome tough and relentless West African adversaries (who themselves were reported to have camped and prepared well in advance, thanks to their competent Football Associations) in a qualification format that continues to leave many observers baffled.
A win and a draw against noisy neighbours Ghana and lively Burkina Faso were followed by yesterday's hard fought, nail biting 2:1 semi final triumph against a hardened skillful and well prepared Cote d'ivoire.
Yesterday's heartwarming win now makes it 2 out of 3 tournaments that Bosso qualified the Flying Eagles for. It will also make it 2 medals he has won for the Under-20s following the 2009 Under-20 Afcon bronze medals in Rwanda.
But a medal at this Wafu Cup is not Bosso's prize; the pot of goal at the end of his rainbow is Afcon qualification.
"The primary aim of everybody in Nigeria is for us to get the slot for the Africa Nations Cup, and we have gotten it. To win the final match itself is not our priority. After the final, we go back home and prepare very well for the Nations Cup," said a buoyant Bosso in the post match press conference I monitored yesterday.
"Winning the final is not everything but we still like to win so we can go home with some pride. But the ultimate is for us to have the ticket and time to prepare for the Cup of Nations, " Bosso espoused.
Filing out yesterday, Bosso went for his usual 4-2-3-1 formation but with an interesting and tantalising twist. In-game, particularly when orchestrating attacking manoeuvres, the three attacking midfielders pushed further up the pitch to almost align and be parallel to the centre forward making the formation look more like 4-2-4 (or at times 3 defenders-3 midfielders-4 strikers which left me shocked and bewildered) .
But this was not a flaw in design, it was actually a deliberate strategy as stated by Bosso in the post match conference.
"The most important thing is that we have watched Ivory Coast play against Niger and Benin Republic," said Bosso as he went on to say the following:
"We observed that they play 3 men defence, 5 in the middle and 2 upfront. And looking at the fact that we didn't start well and we didn't start preparations early (just 1 week before we came to Niger), so, there was no way on earth we could match the midfield playing strength of the Ivorians.
So what we did was to put only 3 players in the middle and then 4 up front so we could be chipping long balls behind their defenders. So in the midfield, Côte d'ivoire had 5, we had 3. So when we retrieved the ball, we tried to avoid the midfield and launch it straight to our strikers.
That was exactly what led to our first goal and also led to our penalty. Honestly Cote d'Ivoire are not a bad side but they have to try their luck next time." Bosso concluded.
For neutrals and fans like myself, it was a thoroughly fascinating, absorbing, nail biting and thrilling encounter to watch. Nigeria came out all guns blazing with a number of crosses and long balls which no doubt rattled the Ivorians, but they had firepower of their own just waiting to be deployed and unleashed when Nigeria was most vulnerable.
With 6 minutes gone, it was 1 goal to nil to Nigeria. An eloquently flighted corner kick left the on rushing Ivorian goalkeeper clutching at straws before Daniel Daga blasted into the vacated net with a precise header that reeked of class and quality, partly earning the ubiquitous midfielder the coveted man of the match award.
As the half unfolded, the Flying Eagles displayed positional discipline, attacking intent, physical prowess, brisk defence-to-attack transition and adequate compactness to dictate the tempo and impose their will on the Ivorians.
For a team that was hastily assembled, they produced decent communication and chemistry to understand Bosso's instructions and interpret these in a coherent and articulate manner with artistry that made the match thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
The Flying Eagles were busy retrieving the ball from Ivorians defensively and recycling it with long balls to orchestrate attacking initiatives. They still played it on grass on several occasions but long balls appeared to be their preferred route to achieving their objectives.
Despite their good works, they still had to rely on excellent goalkeeping from Nwosu who, against all odds in 30 minutes, dived perilously low to his right to execute a 1 handed block from a sure-banker goal bound effort from a one-on-one position.
This is one of the moments that demonstrated the highest level of concentration across the park that has sustained this Bosso's team throughout the tournament despite NFF's shoddy preparations and limited individual skills.
Despite their praiseworthy approach and applications, there were still a number of things that bothered me about this Flying Eagles team in this game.
They are criminally wasteful.
Their decisions in the final third are naive at best and haphazard at worst on occasions. Their long range balls are laughably woeful in conception and embarrassingly delivered in execution. I hear that the NFF has already received a formal complaint from the Niger Republic Air Traffic Controllers as a number of planes had had to be diverted due to the wayward high shots of the Flying Eagles.
After an excellent 1-2 manoeuvre tore open the Ivorian defence, rather than the last recipient looking up to pass to a player through on goal, he elected for a grotesque shot caused no harm. Immediately after, another striker shot straight at an Ivorian defender with the goalkeeper well beaten and the whole goal at his mercy.
These missed opportunities were already interspersed with several long range shots that held much promise if the strikers had kept their shots at a lower range.
The Nigerians will be made to rue their missed opportunities in the dying embers of the first half after a free kick akin to one that beat Enyeama against South Korea in the 2010 world cup flew over to the left side of Nigeria's wall before flying past our goalkeeper who was firmly rooted to the spot. No amount of finger pointing, blame game among the Nigerians could alter the scoreline; 1:1 and a nervy second half beckoned.
It started and this time, it was more of an open game as the Ivorians had come to their own. Whatever medication their coach might have administered and in the break was starting to take effect as they started imposing themselves on Nigeria with far greater spring to their steps. They also smelt blood, Nigerian blood.
The Flying Eagles now displayed less brinkmanship. They were no longer playing it out from the back as much. Their composure started to fray around the edges and they had lost much swagger as they tried to play it safe and contain the rampant Ivorians.
Our defending became rather hasty and uncertain. Last ditch defendings were commonplace as a defender had to slash the ball out for a corner kick at the last minute on one occasion. Ivory Coast were closing our players down very quickly and effectively.
Bosso's boys then resorted to troubling air traffic controllers again with feral, hasty shots from long range. Mind you, they did create good openings before pulling the trigger but the resultant shots were just way too high and wide with very poor techniques applied.
It was now 70 minutes and Nigeria were starting to (finally) regain a foothold. They had wrested the initiative from the Ivorians but the ghost of wastefulness that possessed them had not been exorcised.
A delicious cross found a Nigerian striker one-on-one with the goalkeeper. But before he could clear his legs of cobwebs, the chance had gone. Another beautiful cross left a striker with the simplest of headers but he headed wide.
Though Nigeria were on the ascendancy, they still had goalkeeper Nwosu to thank for unbelievable saves. His excellent starting position averted danger in 83 minutes before another truly astonishing point blank save in 87 minutes kept Nigeria in the tie after the Ivorian striker had left our defenders for dead with sweeping leg movements and a bit of feet flim-flammery.
It was nip and tuck but the match somehow ended 1:1 in regulation time and the plot thickened; extra time.
Nigeria drew first blood in testing the Ivorian goalkeeper 2 times in the first few minutes of extra time with efforts that should have at least produced 1 goal.
Ivory Coast themselves made the Nigerian defence to wrangle away a gilt edge chance before another insane sequence of action saw the Nigerians squander 3 goals scoring opportunities in a row which included another tasty header that went wide.
But it would all be settled in the second half of extra time after a mild lunge from an Ivorian defender gifted Nigeria a fortuitous penalty that was ably tucked away by the ever so wasteful Ibrahim Yahaya after sending the goalkeeper on a fishing expedition.
2:1 to Bosso's boys who successfully grabbed one of the Afcon tickets on offer.
Nigeria will now lock horns with the Benin Republic on Friday. They showed desire, determination and drive to defeat Ivory Coast. Though not very skillful individually, they make up for this in their admirable collective play, cohesion, compactness and (I must confess) physicality.
Bosso was spot on with his formation and tactical approach. Crucially, the goalkeeper was alive to his responsibilities when called upon.
This Flying Eagles are not the finished article by any stretch of the word but the building blocks are there; they have already displayed the modicum of a team that has the capability and capacity to improve in key areas and get the job done when the chips are down.
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