And so begins the fans' journey with our much volatile yet alluring Super Eagles of Nigeria. With the world cup participation dream on ice for another 4 years, this morning's soul-satisfying friendly against Mexico is just the first of many to be scrutinized with a fine tooth-comb by Super Eagles stakeholders.
This will be in judging whether or not Nigeria will be able to present a formidable outfit that will mount a robust campaign culminating in world cup qualification in 4 years time after acceptable 2023 Afcon qualification and tournament expeditions.
Tasked with this humongous responsibility is the enthusiastic and confident Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro who took charge of the Super Eagles for the first time yesterday as his boys slipped to a slim 2:1 loss in an encounter that definitely provided ample glimpse of what to expect of Nigeria from the former Real Madrid assistant gaffer.
Santiago Gimenez stole behind the defence to stab home in 12 minutes which undid Nigeria's admirable positional discipline until then. Though the Super Eagles were clearly under the cosh, they were not hopelessly torn out of position. They were resolute as they tried to find their feet.
Nigeria's counter-strike came courtesy of Dessers' dashing header in 54 minutes that slammed the ground before ramming through the goalkeeper. The Belgian born forward was making his first start and scoring his first goal for Nigeria. But the parity wouldn't last as Ekong lashed home an own goal in 56 minutes - his second own goal that I can recall in Super Eagles colours following the one that gifted Algeria the lead in the 2019 Afcon semi-final.
It ended 2:1 which is an adequate reflection of how events transpired in the match.
For me, I was thoroughly satisfied with what I saw. It was a typical Super Eagles performance: nothing special but nothing to be overly worried about. They didn't see the ball as much as they would have liked but they were not humiliated by the more organized and technically gifted Mexicans. The Super Eagles made it difficult for their opponents and dispensed their role in a manner that left the score line respectable even in defeat.
Instantly, you could see the Peseiro-factor come into play in how the Super Eagles were arranged and how they organized themselves in-game. It started with my preferred 3-5-2 formation when attacking which transforms to 5-3-2 when defending. When Moses Simon moved to midfield (particularly in the second half) it easily became 4-4-2.
The original formation has 3 the center backs flanked with Moses Simon as right wingback and Calvin Bassey as left wingback. Then the flat midfield trio was made up of Iwobi to the left, Bonke in the middle and Aribo to the right. And then Dessers was the centre forward with Moffi his sidekick.
Iwobi's fluidity, mobility and movements for the left yesterday were integral to lubricating Nigeria's midfield and flaring up exciting attacking possibilities. He was ably complemented by Aribo's fancy footwork, piercing runs and penetrative passes.
Defensively though, Iwobi's position was breached for Mexico's first goal as the long ball from left midfield that led to the delicate cross for the goal came from an area that should have been manned by Iwobi. Although Nigeria played with commendable positional discipline that was easily discernible, wonky arrangement at the back kept Gimenez on-side for Mexico's first goal with Simon and Ajayi not in sync with the position of the other 3 defenders (as the 2 sank too deep).
Uzoho was a sitting duck for that first goal.
It was nice to see Nigeria attempt to carve out several attacking initiatives of their own throughout the encounter. Aribo and Simon tried to combine at the left; Iwobi's runs created several openings; long balls were launched at Dessers; Basseys crosses were delightful; Ishaq made his presence known; which all translated to the variety of ways in which they orchestrated goal scoring opportunities.
But they did struggle to string passes together at times. The players seemed too sparsely spaced out leading to passes across a wider space on the pitch. Things got better and tighter in the second half when Moses Simon provided extra body in the midfield. After the break, they became tighter and a bit more concise in possession.
The chemistry between the Dessers and Moffi (playing together for the first time) wasn't exactly thoroughbred. Someone like a marauding Osihmen or a home-based player who is very eager to please, with legs and lungs to match his ambitions, will suit a support striker role in that set up.
At the back, Uzoho is slowly playing his way back to Nigerian hearts. He made a number of eye-catching saves last night and could be excused for the 2 goals Nigeria conceded. But he needs to find a club where he will play regularly from next season otherwise he will easily lose his spot to Okoye or an active and agile home-based goalkeeper.
On occasions, Nigeria looked like Everton under Frank Lampard last night. They displayed excellent positional discipline without the ball and made life difficult for the Mexicans. Still, they allowed far too many dangerous crosses into their 18 yard box while questionable decision making compounded other shortcomings when they had the ball.
In the first half, they struggled to carve out clearcut scoring opportunities which was clearly addressed and improved upon in the second half with a slight tweak of the formation.
Overall it was an acceptable level of performance by this Jose Peseiro-tutored Super Eagles. It provided assurance that with time, and luck, the 62 year old tactician can mould this set of players into a cohesive unit that will restore Nigeria back to its rightful place in the global football community.
Peseiro's unique selling point in this match was how the Super Eagles were professional, resolute and disciplined. Their style of play was easily discernible which peaked my interest and kept me invested in what the players were trying to do.
The last thing I wanted to see was a disjointed, incoherent and disorganized Super Eagles display for long periods. Yes they were rattled at times and they needed to go 1 goal down before firing on their cylinders, but once they got going, the Super Eagles gave a professional account of themselves.
The foundation has definitely been laid for a Super Eagles edifice that will be built on maximizing possibilities inherent in the player-resources at Nigeria's disposal at this time in order to deliver compelling performances in games to come.
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