The FIFA Arab Cup concluded last month in Qatar may have given North African qualifiers an advantage at the 2022 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament kicking off on January 9.
Algeria scored two goals in extra time to beat neighbours Tunisia 2-0 in the final on December 18 to win the tournament hosted by Qatar, who will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The quality the North African teams shown in that competition enables fans and pundits to assess the chances of the Super Eagles team that is seeking a fourth AFCON title in Cameroon.
The Super Eagles won the tournament in Nigeria in 1980; Tunisia in 1994 and South Africa in 2013. Those triumphs were recorded in three different regions of Africa – West Africa, North Africa, and Southern Africa.
The victories also came at increasing intervals of 14 and 19 years. If that pattern continues, Nigeria’s next conquest will come in 2037! I can hear a lot of ‘God forbid!’ Don’t mind me, I am just taking baby steps in data analysis!
Nigerian fans can take consolation from the fact that football always defies predictions by experts: remember, no one saw the 2013 triumph of the Super Eagles in South Africa coming.
But can the class of 2022 spring another surprise in Cameroon? Can the Eguavoen boys emulate the illustrious classes of 1980, 1994, and 2013?
This unbalanced squad of non-performing stars seems to lack the distinct traits of would-be champions.
That is why the team is not inspiring confidence in the fans, a week before the start of AFCON 22 and three months before the final round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. I base this analysis on the pedigree of the players available to the new Super Eagles gaffer Augustine Eguavoen.
The football laity knows an outstanding player when they see one; they know the ones struggling; they also know those that do not have any business being in the team. Just to reiterate, a progressive manager is also known by his antecedents and philosophy. But with Eguavoen, it is difficult to see what is on offer.
We will use data culled from sofa score, whoscored, and from some football commentators as we build the ideal Super Eagles squad. We will also find out why the attackers look world-class but the midfielders, defenders, and goalkeepers look like journeymen.
World-class attack, average midfield, poor defence, managerial gamble
There is a popular saying in football that “offence wins games but defence wins tournaments.” If this is true, then the Super Eagles can go deep into the AFCON tournament but lack the requisite backbone to go all the way.
Defensive lineup lacking pace
In an extensive talk given to the ‘Film Room’, Eguavoen spoke about the spine of a team. “For you to have a formidable team, you have to look at the spine of the team”. The famous 1994 squad had Peter Rufai in goal; Stephen Keshi and Okechukwu Uche as defensive leaders; Sunday Oliseh and Austin Okocha in the middle and the great Rashidi Yekini and Daniel Amokachi led the attack.
Do the Super Eagles class of 2022 have quality personnel to form a formidable spine?
Rufai, who captained the side in Keshi’s absence, was at the peak of his powers, with enough experience to direct those in front of him. Keshi and Okechukwu offered stability and defensive solidity. It is difficult to recall attackers going past Okechukwu in his national team career. Okechukwu’s importance was further highlighted by his role as the defensive pillar on which the 1996 Olympic Games’ gold-winning triumph was built.
Bruce Barr, writing in Quora, said, “If you’re having a bad game offensively your defense can bail you out. If you’re having a bad game defensively, things usually don’t go well.”
Gernot Rohr’s preferred formation was Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong in central defensive duties, with Jamilu Collins at left-back and Chidozie Awaziem at right back.
The initial list omitted Semi Ajayi, Kevin Akpoguma, and Calvin Bassey, which meant Eguavoen essentially took away the faster legs in the defensive setup. William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun (currently injured) are not the fastest, as we have seen from their displays for the Eagles and their European clubs. In the updated squad list, they have added Ajayi to replace the injured Balogun.
A midfield lacking creativity
One challenge Rohr failed to address in his five years as manager was the lack of a go-to playmaker, which made his teams dull and uninspired on the ball. There was no one in the middle of the park to create and score goals.
A match where there was a spark from midfield was the 4-2 friendly win over Argentina in 2017. Alex Iwobi sparkled and we all thought that finally, Nigeria had the No.10 we craved. Unfortunately, Iwobi has fallen into a rut and the search for a playmaker goes on. Will it be Kelechi Nwakali or Chidera Ejuke who will grab the opportunity in Cameroon?
Still a potent attack without Osimhen
Eguavoen initially named six attackers (No.9s) in the squad who between them had scored 57 club goals going to Cameroon. Everybody’s obvious first choice would be Victor Osimhen but unfortunately, the Napoli striker had to be ruled out over a facial injury and Covid. In a tournament where opponents have had time to study the squad in-depth, there will be solutions in place to deal with the expected frontmen.
The 1994 Eagles had Emmanuel Amuneke, while the 2013 squad had the unknown Sunday Mba. Even the 2000 squad, denied the crown by Cameroon in Lagos, had Julius Aghahowa. Who will be the player in this squad that can provide a spark when the first possibilities have been removed?
A peep into Eguavoen’s mind
We are what we say most of the time. When we speak our minds, we are not thinking of impressing or flattering anyone. The Super Eagles interim manager revealed his mind concerning some players in that ‘Film Room’ interview just before the NFF appointed him as interim manager.
“When I see Chidera Ejuke today-I think that young man if properly used if we encourage him, can do great things. [Samuel] Chukwueze is like a baby; he still has a lot, I think he can still achieve a lot.
“When I see Wilfred Ndidi in the midfield…not 100% like Oliseh, but I think he is on his way to becoming one of the best defensive players in the world, but he is holding back as far as I am concerned. He’s got a lot to still give, but I feel he is holding back. I’ve spoken to him once or twice. The reason why he is holding back, I don’t know. When I say holding back; I think he can do better than what he is doing. He’s got potential, a lot.
“When I see Osimhen, he reminds me of strikers who can keep you on your toes as a defender for the entire 90 minutes. If you blink, he will punish you. Osimhen is one player that really excites me when it comes to attacking.
“Iheanacho is okay, but the only little problem is that in Leicester he is playing a different position and when he comes to Nigeria, he is playing a different position. I think the sooner he settles for one position; I think the better for him.”
Eguavoen then added that players need to fulfill two out of the these SIT criteria to be considered for the team. And these are S for speed and strength; I for Intelligence – knowing what to do at the right time, thinking before the ball gets to you; it is doing things out of nothing, and T for technique.
Aside from being the fifth-ranked team in Africa, the Super Eagles have not had the best of preparations, especially by changing managers just weeks before the tournament.
But this is where that famed ‘Nigerian Spirit’ shines the brightest. A lot of us will pray as the tournament begins to be pleasantly surprised by a fourth AFCON triumph.
Revised Super Eagles squad
Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (AC Omonia, Cyprus); John Noble (Enyimba FC); Daniel Akpeyi (Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa); Maduka Okoye (Sparta Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
Defenders: Chidozie Awaziem (Alanyaspor FC, Turkey); Kenneth Omeruo (CD Leganes, Spain); Oluwasemilogo Ajayi (West Bromwich Albion, England); William Troost-Ekong (Watford FC, England); Olaoluwa Aina (Torino FC, Italy); Jamilu Collins (SC Paderborn 07, Germany); Tyronne Ebuehi (Venezia FC, Italy); Zaidu Sanusi (FC Porto, Portugal); Olisa Ndah (Orlando Pirates, South Africa)
Midfielders: Frank Onyeka (Brentford FC, England); Joseph Ayodele-Aribo (Glasgow Rangers, Scotland); Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England); Chidera Ejuke (CSKA Moscow, Russia); Kelechi Nwakali (SD Huesca, Spain)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Fatih Karagumruk, Turkey); Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal FC, Spain); Henry Onyekuru (Olympiacos FC, Greece); Moses Simon (FC Nantes, France); Sadiq Umar (UD Almeria, Spain); Taiwo Awoniyi (Union Berlin, Germany); Odion Jude Ighalo (Al-Shabab Riyadh, Saudi Arabia); Alex Iwobi (Everton FC, England); Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England); Peter Olayinka (SK Slavia Praha, Czech Republic)
Probable starting 11 against Egypt
Maduka Okoye; Chidozie Awaziem, William Troost-Ekong, Kenneth Omeruo, Zaidu Sanusi; Wilfred Ndidi, Frank Onyeka; Moses Simon, Chidera Ejuke, Samuel Chukwueze; Taiwo Awoniyi.
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