The home-based Super Eagles team is in Morocco to take part in the 2018 African Nations Championship [CHAN] hoping to win it for the first time. With a majority of the squad professing their love of music and dancing, Nigerian football fans should be right to expect their play to be as rhythmic as good music when the tournament kicks off on Friday.
The composition of the team predicts a good outing – though it also predicts they could just fall short of the title that Nigeria has never won. Why? Because of lack of big-game experience!
Salisu Yusuf, the head coach has gone for a largely untested group of players infused with just four that have had previous CHAN experience.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa, the captain of the team, Stephen Eze, Kalu Orji Okagbue, and Rabiu Ali are the four were in Rwanda under Sunday Oliseh and will seek to guide the green horns as they first battle Libya, Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea in the group stage.
Two-time African champions, Enyimba, have five players on the roster; serial league winners, Pillars FC have three; league champions, Plateau United have two as do 2016 league champions, Enugu Rangers.
The Eagles start the tournament against Rwanda on January 15 and play their second group game at the same venue against Libya on Friday 19 January and conclude their group participation against debutants Equatorial Guinea at the Stade Adrar, Agadir on January 23.
Salisu Yusuf chose Ikechukwu Ezenwa, who just joined Enyimba from Ifeanyi Uba FC; Oladele Ajiboye from league champions, Plateau United and Theophilus Afelokhai from Enyimba.
Journalists with a good knowledge of the local scene are of the verdict that there are better and younger goalkeepers that could have been third choice at the tournament.
While Ezenwa is fighting for a World Cup place Ajiboye and Afelokhai are NPFL veterans.
Ajiboye was part of the 2013 U-17 World Cup winning team while Afelokhai was not Enyimba’s main goalkeeper for the 2017 season. A player like Suraj Ayeleso, who kept 16 clean sheets in the league, was invited to the team’s camp in Abuja dropped.
Defenders: Osas Okoro; Daniel James Itodo; Kalu Orji Okagbue; Ikouwem Utin; Abdullahi Musa; Timothy Danladi; Ifeanyi Nweke; Stephen Eze
There was mild consensus on the defenders’ list – that the best are on this list. Enyimba’s Chima Akas would have made the team stronger but the left-footed ace voluntarily withdrew from the team, which was how Utin made it.
Midfielders: Ifeanyi Ifeanyi; Rabiu Ali; Augustine Oladapo; Ekundayo Ojo
In a normal tournament roster of 23 players, six to seven are guaranteed to be midfielders, but Coach Yusuf has gone for just the four. There was the postulation that football agents could have had a hand in this. The [contentious] argument was strikers sell more than midfielders, as CHAN has always been a veritable scouting ground for Europe-based clubs.
Forwards: Emeka Atuloma; Anthony Okpotu; Eneji Moses; Ibrahim Mustapha; Emeka Ogbuh; Sunday Faleye; Nura Muhammed; Okechukwu Gabriel
The man who scored the goal that qualified the Eagles for CHAN; Coach Yusuf dropped Kingsley Eduwo. The explanation was that he did not perform to par in the three-week camp threw up the 23-man list. That was also the same reason why MFM’s Sikiru Olatunbosun was dropped.
Questions are being asked why no player from MFM FC made the list? The team that came second in last season’s NPFL initially had Stephen Odey and Sikiru Olatunbosun in the main Eagles team under Gernot Rohr and got debuts. Odey has since moved to Switzerland but Olatunbosun was inexplicably dropped while the diminutive Chukwuka Onuwa was never invited.
Rotimi Akindele, who reports for Beat FM in Lagos, said, “this list could be said to be a fair one” while local league veteran, Bode Oguntuyi postulated it was not a fair reflection of the best players over the 38 weeks of last season.
Oguntuyi made this retort – ‘would Gareth Southgate drop Harry Kane from the England national team if he doesn’t perform in training?
The answer is probably no. Because Kane will make the team based on his performance throughout the season. “When in the national camp – all the coach has to do is work on the technical aspects of his team and ensure the invited players understand the philosophy,” Oguntuyi continued.
For Ojeikhere Aikhoje, who covers the league for Super Sports, the dropping of Eduwo did not sit too well. “Though I can’t understand why he was dropped – I believe not playing pre-season with Lobi Stars could have meant a loss of form in camp.
“But I would have picked him nonetheless because of his partnership with [Anthony] Okpotu, who he played with at Lobi Stars last season.
On the naming of just four midfielders – Aikhoje said, “Some of the forwards, like Faleye can double as wide midfielders. Faleye has good pace and can play from both flanks,” he added.
Eagles’ lack of match fitness
With no league action for over three months, many pundits are wary of the match sharpness of the CHAN Eagles. The common denominator in their fears is that match fitness is very different from match sharpness. “You can be fit to play 90 minutes but not sharp enough to make a good tackle”.
Nigeria’s Group C opponents; Libya concluded their league season on November 25 with a final between Al-Ittihad and Al-Tahaddi. The Rwandan league has been suspended but had their Week 10 match on December 27, 2017. Kiyovu Sports led the league with 20 points. For Equatorial Guinea, the league was concluded last June while the Nigeria Professional Football League was concluded on September 9, with Plateau United emerging winners for the first time.
The CHAN tournament started in 2009 and in its past four editions has been won by Congo DR in 2009; Tunisia in 2011; Libya in 2014; and Congo DR in 2016. The Super Eagles’ best performance was in South Africa in 2014, where they came third.
CAF League Rankings
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Country||CAF Rank||Country||CAF Rank||Country||CAF Rank||Country||CAF Rank|
|Sudan||7||CIV||8||Eq. Guinea||NA||Burkina Faso||NA|
Video Assistant Referee [VAR] will be in use in Morocco. This is according to the CAF Referees’ Committee that met last year November in Egypt.
But the experiment would kick off at the quarterfinal stage with the FIFA shortlist of African referees for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
No Mean Task
The Eagles played a 0-0 with the Lions of Cameroon on Wednesday in what the NFF described as a ‘very physical friendly. Yusuf told the NFF website, “The progress of the players is very encouraging and I believe we are going to do well in the tournament. He promised the Eagles will ‘fight’ to make Nigeria proud as they are ‘technically, tactically, and psychologically ready for the challenge’.
The Eagles start their quest on Monday, January 15, against Rwanda; battle Libya on January 19 and play their last group match against Equatorial Guinea on January 23. The quarterfinals are scheduled for January 27 and 28 while the semifinals are slated for January 31 in Casablanca and Marrakech. The final is scheduled for the Complexe Mohammed V in Casablanca on February 4.