The Super Eagles put up a determined display to avoid an upset that in truth seemed on the cards against a feisty Cape Verde yesterday by eventually settling for a 1:1 draw in the world cup qualifier in Lagos.
Vivacious Victor Osimhen blasted home from close range in just 1 minute to put Nigeria ahead before Ekong and Okoye contrived with shoddy defending to give Cape Verde a route back into the encounter in 6 minutes with Stopira's shock finish.
The 33 year old veteran Cape Verde full back, who incidentally is winger Funsho Bamgboye's teammate at Fehervar in the Hungarian Premier League, peeled off Ekong with ease to shoot past Okoye in style to set the tone for a tension soaked, nail biting encounter.
Cape Verde were determined to make a contest of this and the Super Eagles had to be alert and tuned-in to avoid a third debacle on home soil in recent times following the Sierra Leone capitulation of last year and the Central Africa Republic collapse of this year.
Mercifully, they kept the Cape Verdeans at bay long enough to see out the match.
Below are my 7 observations:
1. Oyinbo wall duopoly not sustainable: Ekong and Balogun have served Nigeria well over the years but I think they are coming to the end of their tether. As a duo, their capacity to avoid mistakes is now untenable. They both are ungainly at times in their approach and always look very vulnerable under pressure. Awaziem had to be brought to inject additional support without which Ekong and Balogun's frailties could be more easily exposed and explored.
It is clear, if Rohr reverts to a back-two, either one of them or even both of them have to be consigned to the bench.
2. Ndidi and Iwobi have impeccable workrate: when it comes to abilities, I think we can definitely find players who rival Iwobi and Ndidi in Nigeria's midfield. But when it comes to work rate, selflessness and endurance, both players are unsurpassed. They are the quintessential engine room of Nigeria's midfield whose impact will be missed if unavailable.
Nigeria dictated the tempo of the game for long periods yesterday with a clear pattern, fluid approach and uniform movements. And while I will not want to diminish the contribution of others, I thought Iwobi and Ndidi were at the heart of everything good: helping to recycle the ball and peg back Cape Verde.
Both players will be needed in the crunch playoffs next year.
3. Aribo and Collins much improved: in an aspect of the game that sets wingbacks apart as top quality, Collins showed marked improvements - this is deliveries. Collins could easily have had 2 assists to his name yesterday had Osimhen and Ighalo found their shooting range. He was all over Cape Verde like a rash up front and defended doggedly at the back. That said, there is still scope for magic and elegance to be injected in that role which Collins lacked. Other options should be tried.
Similarly, the centre midfield position should evoke moments of amazement and release this elixir of delight that continue to be absent from Aribo's interpretation in Super Eagles colours. But, the Rangers man showed remarkable improvements in his movements, distribution, focus, application, work rate and efforts on goal.
He can walk with his head held up high with his effective display yesterday. But that role offers so much more…
4. Ighalo's strike partners to work harder: it is clear from yesterday that Ighalo will locate himself mainly in and around the opposition 18 yard box. This might work well for Nigeria because it ensures that someone will always be at the end of passes. You see, Osimhen and Iheanacho have the tendency to move around a lot - not a bad thing but with Ighalo, he always seeks to sit around the 18 yard box to wait for the perfect opportunity to pounce - however long it takes.
Hence he had no less than 4 great chances to score within the first 30 minutes. The down side of this is that unlike Osimhen and Iheanacho, Ighalo will not do his fair share of defending. Also, his strike partner will have to work harder and cover more grounds which may seem slightly unfair.
5. Moses Simon and Maduka Okoye are suspects: the Nantes winger is actually astute defensively but his utility with the ball isn't optimum. For better deliveries from the wingback, Rohr may need to seek out a player who defends and attacks with the same level of effectiveness and productivity.
Goalkeeper Okoye was comedic in his efforts to stop Cape Verde's goal. Yes he has a massive capacity to improve but in the short-term, Okoye's shortcomings could come to hurt the Super Eagles.
6. Where to play Chukwueze and Ejuke: it is clear that in a 3-5-2 formula, it will be tricky to accommodate Chukwueze and Ejuke. Both are explosive wingers with questionable defensive attributes. So it will be hard to play them as wingbacks.
Efforts were made to inject Ejuke as an attacking midfielder in the penultimate game against Liberia but this proved to be a vanity project.
If Rohr should persist with this formation, he would need to fashion out a way that provides the right platform for the Ejukes of this world to thrive.
7. Super Eagles can rise to the occasion: despite the frailties identified across all departments for Nigeria, Rohr's Super Eagles showed me yesterday that, when the chips are down, they can raise their game and rise to the occasion.
Yesterday, they displayed positional discipline that was executed to perfection across the park. Because of the tensed nature of the game, many fans didn't realise how organised, compact, focused, purposeful, fluid and coherent the Super were in their play.
Few players were drawn out of position. Nigeria dictated play with 53% of possession with 14 goal attempts against just 3 for Cape Verde. The Super Eagles functioned as close to a well oiled machine as I have seen in recent games. As the Cape Verdeans attempted to pile the pressure in the second half, the Super Eagles expertly kept them at bay whilst looking to sneak in a goal.
It was a competent display but one lost in the fog of tension generated by the need of Nigeria not to slip up.
Hopefully Rohr and his boys can build on this display and get better in subsequent games.
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