Nigeria and Scotland met in Fulham to contest a pre-World Cup friendly. This match needed to set the tone for the summer to come for the Super Eagles, but while Uche Nwofor’s late equaliser sent Nigeria fans home in jubilant mood, Stephen Keshi’s troops generated more questions than answers.
So, what did we learn? Well, the honest answer is: not that much. The Super Eagles line-up featured only one player, Elderon Echiejile, who will likely start Nigeria’s opening World Cup match against Iran this summer.
Naturally, the Big Boss needs to assess the players who will flesh out his squad in Brazil, and it is important that he decides which of the provisional 30 will make the plane. Whereas in matches against Italy and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, Keshi trialled some fringe players alongside the side’s key men, against Scotland he decided to haul 10 sporadic internationals into the fray together. This meant that right from the off, the Super Eagles lacked cohesion.
It’s hard to know what Reuben Gabriel brings to the midfield when paired alongside the returning Joel Obi, making his first appearance in 18 months. It’s difficult to truly judge Kunle Odunlami when one of the Championship of African Nations’ most impressive centre-backs was played at right-back, flanking an unfamiliar defensive pairing of Joseph Yobo and Azubuike Egwuekwe. Can we really assess Shola Ameobi-likely to be a substitute in Brazil-when he is flanked by Michel Babatunde and Ejike Uzoenyi rather than Ahmed Musa and Peter Odemwingie?
It’s no wonder that for large portions of the match it was Scotland, and not Nigeria, who looked like they were World Cup-bound. Scotland are an organised and intense unit under Gordon Strachan; the Super Eagles that turned out on Wednesday looked, too often, like strangers lumbered together.
This is not a criticism of the players; Joel Obi doesn’t know exactly the runs that Michael Uchebo’s going to make and can’t play his passes accordingly. Babatunde isn’t aware, exactly, of how Ameobi attacks balls in the box and thus how to deliver his crosses. We couldn’t have expected much more.
Did Keshi, in lumping 10 fringe players together, waste the opportunity to examine four of them, for example, alongside the men who will lead the side out in South America? It certainly felt that way at times. The original starting selection makes it difficult to assess the Super Eagles’ World Cup chances much better than we could have done 24 hours ago.
Are the defensive unit up to the tests to come? Well, Enyeama-Elderson-Oboabona-Omeruo-Ambrose are; Ejide-Elderson-Egwuekwe-Yobo-Odunlami ... not so much. Can Nigeria’s offence cause problems for Bosnia’s shabby backline? Well, Moses-Emenike-Musa-Odemwingie might be able to; Uzoenyi-Ameobi-Uchebo-Babatunde probably won’t give the Eastern Europeans too many sleepless nights.
Looking at Keshi’s provisional squad of 30, Kunle Odunlami and Michel Babatunde are probably two names that many would pick to be culled. Following their showings against Scotland, both men moved further away from the ultimate invitation. The former struggled to cope with Scotland’s Nigerian winger Ikechi Anya, who gave him problems all day with his intelligent movement, electric pace and testing deliveries. Odunlami, admittedly playing out of position, spent a while out on the turf after a collision and was replaced by Efe Ambrose soon after.
Babatunde, again, struggled to impose himself and did little to protect his full-back. The Volyn man hasn’t done much in his showings to date to suggest that he can compete against the world’s finest, and it’s a little bewildering that he continues to feature alongside the nation’s finest. He dived into a 50/50 tackle late on — not necessarily advisable with a World Cup on the horizon — looking like a man either desperate to make it to Brazil or desperate not to make it. I suspect Keshi will already have a conclusion drawn out for Babatunde.
Joseph Yobo, speaking the post-match press conference, spoke of the “exciting new faces” he has found in the squad since his return. Excluding goal-scorer Michael Uchebo — who received some completely undue criticism from fans in the stadium and online before his goal — appears to be the only player the Fenerbahce defender could realistically be referring to.
The key positives probably come in optimism and explanation rather than tangible contributions. Uchebo and Uche Nwofor, who entered the contest to great, goal-scoring effect late on, have given Keshi something to think about in attack. Both men offer something and, importantly, are the kind of mobile, energetic players that the Big Boss has looked to incorporate in his side.
Peter Odemwingie returned to a hero’s welcome and responded to the acclaim with some fine touches, encouraging link-up play and by being a menacing presence in dangerous areas. He looks likely to travel and provides options in the final third.
Finally, Joel Obi. His cameo was brief, but ‘The Man of Glass’ managed to show some of the qualities that he brings to the team and, specifically, to the heart of the midfield. To varying degrees of success, Obi dropped deep to pick the ball up from the defence, dictated the temp and sought to drive forward with possession to make things happen amidst the Scottish lines.
What was the most impressive aspect of his performance? It was probably the way he took responsibility and exuded authority in the middle of the park. Few of us expected this, but Obi was a vocal and authoritative presence, despite his slender years, and wasn’t afraid to take players on and look to make things happen. This is what has been missing and this is what is needed in the centre of the park. The prospect of Obi playing alongside John Obi Mikel, with Ogenyi Onazi’s bustle, is mouth-watering.
Yobo, speaking after the match, expressed an anticipation that things will “fall into place” in the next two friendlies. There were a few reasons for optimism tonight, but the late goal certainly put a gloss on a disappointing showing. Ultimately, Yobo needs to be right. There needs to be more cohesion, more direction and clearer signs that Keshi knows the best approach for Brazil.