Nigeria's World Cup preparations step up a gear at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night as the Super Eagles take on the Tartan Army in an international friendly
ANALYSISBy Sam Praise
A year ago, ahead of Nigeria’s friendly with Mexico, I wrote an article identifying the upcoming fixture as a “tempestuous gateway to a summer of destiny." Relatively fresh off the back of the Super Eagles’ Cup of Nations victory, Stephen Keshi’s men were embarking on a vital few months of action.
For things to go well, Nigeria would need to navigate the rest of the CAF World Cup Qualification Programme and give a good account of themselves in the Confederations Cup. This would achieve the target of a place in Brazil and would ensure that the Big Boss had the federation’s faith to go on and develop an exciting crop of players.
If things had gone badly—both in the qualifiers and the cup—then the promise of South Africa would have been washed away in a flood of recrimination, Keshi would have been dismissed and a promising collective would have seen their progress stall indefinitely.
Looking back, Keshi just about navigated the ‘summer of destiny’. World Cup Qualification was achieved after the play-off against Ethiopia and the Confederations Cup showing, while disappointing, was largely explained away by mitigating circumstances.
The upcoming friendly against Scotland represents an even more crucial ‘gateway’ for Keshi’s elite. This is to be a summer of great trials, of great drama, no doubt, but also, on a grander scale, it represents an opportunity for Nigeria to reassert themselves within the global footballing narrative.
What legacy will this collective leave beyond this summer?
An AFCON victory, while unforgettable at home, is no guarantee of a lasting international legacy—just look at the great Egyptian side that failed to qualify once for the World Cup; who outside of the continent will remember the names Mohamed Barakat, Amr Zaki and Essam El-Hadary in 20 years’ time?
The Cote d’Ivoire’s failure to ever escape from the group stage at the World Cup casts a grubby cloud over the fabled Golden Generation.
Will the Cup of Nations victory in early 2013 be the pinnacle for this talented assembly of stars, or was that the first achievement of a Nigerian revival? It is nearly 16 years since Nigeria last featured in the knock-out stages, the ‘business end’ of a World Cup—Keshi cannot allow the wait to continue any longer.
The match against Scotland in London, the first of three pre-tournament friendlies, will be an important contest to set the tone for the next month (and hopefully longer).
The way I see it, Keshi has several primary options of how to approach this evening. Nigeria’s last two friendlies, against Italy and Mexico, provide opposing templates.
Option 1 | An Experimental Nigeria XI
Against the Italians, at Craven Cottage, back in November, the Big Boss opted for a fairly experimental line-up, using the opportunity to assess some of his fringe options. Solomon Kwambe and Francis Benjamin started that day in the full-back positions, even though neither of them provided tangible competition for Efe Ambrose or Elderson Echiejile respectively.
Both men struggled, and have since been dispatched from the squad.
There were also places for Azubuike Egwuekwe, Austin Ejide and Bright Dike in the starting XI. Only four of the players who began the match could be considered as part of Nigeria’s typical first eleven.
Should Keshi approach the match against Scotland in a similar way? Will the friendly be used to gauge the suitability of some of the squad’s fringe members? The manager will need to make some tough personnel decisions between now and the beginning of June, and this match, before the pressure burns as intensely as it will towards the end of May, represents a rare occasion to assess the likes of Reuben Gabriel, Uche Nwofor, Michel Babatunde and Kunle Odunlami, for example.
I would fear for Nigeria should these players be cast into the fray into Brazil—as they may well need to be—without having been given the occasion to play with the team beforehand.
Option 2 | A 'New Direction' XI - Could Keshi indicate his summmer plans vs. Scotland?
The more recent friendly, against Mexico, saw Keshi go for a wholly different approach. The Big Boss reverted, largely, to his typical first XI and Michael Uchebo, making his debut, was the only non-first-teamer to start.
Uchebo’s inclusion offered not only an opportunity to assess a potential new Super Eagle, it also gave Keshi the chance to experiment with a new formation. A 4-4-1-1, with Uchebo behind Emmanuel Emenike, allowed the manager to familiarise his players with an approach that may need to be employed in Brazil.
Sticking with the regular first XI, the type as they call it here in France, gives Keshi’s players a further occasion to familiarise themselves with each other once again and allows the manager to go into more detail and develop the specifics of his tactical approach.
Either pathway opens the door to a potential starting berth for the three players that have generated arguably the most comment in the period since Keshi named his provisional World Cup 30; Joseph Yobo, Peter Odemwingie and Joel Obi.
All three are potential starters in Brazil, but all three are potentially problematic inclusions as well. The two veterans were popular choices among many Nigeria fans who accessed my Nigeria Squad Selector app. Yobo was named in 63% of squads and just under 10% of first elevens, while Odemwingie was among the eleven most popular players, featuring in almost 66% of fans’ starting line-ups.
Yobo, I suspect, will not start in Brazil, but if he is to play any part at all, it would be preferable if he has built up some kind of rapport with Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo ahead of the tournament. Could the Scotland match be a good occasion to assess what the Super Eagles’ record cap holder brings to the backline?
What role will Joseph Yobo play this summer?
With regards to Odemwingie, Keshi needs to use the coming weeks to examine both his on-field contribution and his interaction with the likes of Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses, but also his off-field behaviour and integration within the new Nigerian landscape.
Both men, as well as Obi, could bring major benefits to an experimental line-up, particularly considering their Premier League experience and the likely nature of a clash with the Scots.
If Keshi wants to refine his starting XI, however, and chooses to include any of the three, it would represent an intriguing expression of faith on behalf of the manager and may well shed light on his plans, and potentially a chance in direction, ahead of the summer.
Either way, the battle—and it will be a battle—against the Scots represents, in its own way, another tempestuous gateway into another summer of destiny.
There are many demands upon Keshi, but above all, the manager must use this match to set the tone for the weeks ahead.