Super Eagles on Sunday in Ismailia, Egypt, lost 1-0 to the Terranga Lions of Senegal. It was the last preparatory game before the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations which starts in Egypt on Friday.
The Senegalese are the best ranked team on the continent according to the rankings of the world football body, FIFA. And because the match was played behind closed doors, it is difficult to evaluate the performances of the Eagles.
The 1-0 scoreline was respectable but it is important to state that the country’s team to the tournament has failed to score in 180 minutes of football.
Nigeria also played a goalless draw with Zimbabwe in the last home friendly match in Asaba, Delta State. Nigeria’s run in into the tournament was characterized with goal drought despite having a very potent assemblage of stars in the attack. It is however important to state that there are two major issues leading to the finals.
The first is the return of skipper Mikel Obi to the team and the other is the exclusion of Kelechi Iheanacho from the final 23-man list for the event. Many followers of the game in Nigeria are still worried about the sharp decline in form of this amazing talent who dazzled the world at the FIFA U-17 level few years back.
Semi Ajayi was also dropped from the initial 25-man list and not many people are talking about him. Ajayi, unlike Iheanacho, had an amazing season with his club, Rotherham United, and despite his consistency and playing time, he failed to make the final cut due to the thinking of Manager Gernot Rohr.
We recall his emergence in the provisional list was a surprise but credit goes to Rohr who insisted on having a final look at the Leicester City forward.
How Iheanacho degenerated to this level remains a mystery but the Eagles manager deserves all the accolades for basing his final decision on merit and not sentiments. When Eagles played Argentina in an international friendly, the free kick converted by Iheanacho in that friendly will remain fresh in the memory.
His time at Manchester City was not a disaster. He recorded 21 goals and eight assists in 64 games in two seasons even though he was not a regular starter in the team loaded with worldclass stars. The arrival of Pep Guardiola made this difficult for him but he still recorded seven goals and three assists in his last season at the Ethihad Stadium.
This is the same promising player who was voted Most Valuable Player at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup which Nigeria won. He was tipped to be a huge success at Leicester but this did not happen.
Fans of Liverpool will not forgive him for his embarrassing miss in one Leicester City’s run-in games last season against Manchester City. Iheanacho had just the keeper to beat and his effort was way off mark as if it was deliberate. A goal would have tied the game at 1-1 and helped Liverpool to win the title.
That miss was enough to justify his exclusion from the AFCON list. In fact, Nigerians have been very harsh on him. Many believe nothing good can come from this player again but at 22, we believe Iheanacho can pick positives from this setback to bounce back better.
It is important to look at the players who denied him a place in the Egypt 2019 train. Apart from Odion Ighalo, who is a standout number one striker and Alex Iwobi who has been a regular with Iheanacho, others are emerging young stars.
This is good news for the technical crew and the country. Victor Oshimen with 22 goals, Paul Onuachu, 20 goals, Henry Onyekuru, 16 goals, and Samuel Chukwueze, 10 goals, are players who made the team on merit based of their exploits last season. Oshimen and Onuachu are the highest scoring Nigerians. In fact on paper, Ighalo’s place is under severe threat and that is why many are calling on Rohr to adopt 4-4-2 or come up with a formation that will have two strikers upfront.
There are quality options and Iheanacho is not better than any of these players. Chukwueze at 19 was a huge success for Villareal in the la Liga last season.
We make bold to say that beyond the exclusion of Iheanacho, Rohr and his men should work hard on the goalkeeping situation and also come up with the best strategy on how to get the best out of the budding talents in the team. They have to determine the best pairing that can guarantee results. Ighalo and Onuachu attack is not a bad idea while Oshimen and Onyekuru could come in later depending on the flow of the game.
Oshimen is also good enough to start depending on the formation of the coach for a particular match. We have to also salute the return of Mikel which is a big boost to the team. Against Zimbabwe in Asaba, he justified his return and the players have also applauded his return. With a new format of 24 teams, we expect a very interesting competition but the Eagles must double efforts to excel in Egypt.
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