The Super Eagles of Nigeria opened their account of the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations with a narrow 1 nil victory over lowly rated Burundi in a group B fixture in Alexandria, Egypt. Odion Jude Ighalo scored the only goal of the match in the 77th minutes after a beautiful back heel pass from left back, Ola Aina.
1. Daniel Akpeyi is not the answer
There were many positives from the victory against Burundi, but very little with the man in between the sticks for Coach Gernot Rhor’s Super Eagles. Rhor opted for South Africa based goalkeeper, Akpeyi who invoked memories of horror whenever he is in duty with the National team.
He recently moved from Chippa United to Kaizer Chiefs in the South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL), looked like an amateur goalkeeper taken to a big tournament. He was shaking and looked unconvincing throughout the match. At some point, you wish no shot will go his way.
At the early stage of the match, a simple back pass was made to the keeper and he could not control the pass, which resulted in a corner. The East Africans sensed fear and attacked Akpeyi at every given opportunity.
The match was won, three points in the bag, a clean sheet which one would say was a good outing, but the continued absent of a commanding figure giving instructions to the back four is a big worry.
Of the three goalkeepers selected for this tournament, Akpeyi was my third choice. The national team at this stage lacks a good goalkeeper who is the last line of defense. Since the retirement of Vincent Enyeama and the cruel leukemia suffered by Carl Ikeme, this position has become a real worry for the Super Eagles.
Francis Uzoho has gone from a promising international career to a calamity when called upon and Ikechukwu Ezenwa who is not even the best shot stopper in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), albeit his experience at this stage. His inclusion in the national team always looks political, a player included by one of the powerful forces behind Nigerian football.
With all his flaws and lack of confident, Uzoho looks the best bet for the Eagles; Akpeyi is not the answer.
2. Back four looks solid but
When I looked at the starting eleven against Burundi, I thought it was a team setup against a weaker side and using the fixture to give some players who may not have started for the Eagles an opportunity to impress. But the back four looked deliberate given the options at the disposal of the coach.
It has become default the pairing of William Troost Ekong and Leon Balogun at the heart of the defense, but given Balogun’s lack of playing time at Brighton and Omeruo’s fantastic season with Leganes in the Spanish La Liga, Rhor decided against that decimal.
It paid off as Omeruo justified his inclusion and is fully expected to start in the next game. Ola Aina at left back was impressive, defensively and going forward; Abdullahi Shehu was okay as always but was with withdrawn with an injury in the first half, and his replacement Chidozie Awaziem didn’t really looked out of place.
But in some occasions, the defense switched off and allowed the Burundians time on the ball which would have been costly against a more formidable opponent.
3. Big decisions in the midfield
It was a bit odd playing Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenogaro Etebo and John Mikel Obi in the same side against the least ranked team in the tournament. A bit conservative and unreasonable given the expected dominance from the Super Eagles.
In a game which you are superior in every aspect, we know that showing respect to your opponent is part of the game, but exerting your authority as the dominant force is more important. As we witnessed during the game, that decision did not pay off, it might against other teams but was not necessary in this one.
Captain Mikel Obi is aging and the effect is seen in how he moves on the pitch. His decline is well and truly in full swing which do not allow him to move the ball as fast as we might have liked.
Wilfred Ndidi was voted Man of the Match and arguably Nigeria’s best player on the day. Etebo is industrious and is a very useful player for the Eagles, but all of these three are defensive minded players. We want Mikel to be the creative hub of this team, whereas his entire career, he has been playing as a defensive midfielder. It worked in some occasions but we cannot continue like this if Nigeria wants to win this expanded tournament.
4. Iwobi is our creative hope
Alex Iwobi was ranked 29th of the 419 players in the 2018/2019 English Premier League. With eight assists in 35 matches across all competitions in the just concluded season, he has 0.27 assists per 90 minutes. While 32 years old Mikel Obi played 24 times last season, 3 at the Fifa World Cup and 18 for Middleborough in the English Championship with no single assist.
Mikel’s experience is a big boost to this rather young side, but he lacks the spark and energy to create goals for the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
Alex Iwobi is seen by Arsenal hierarchy as a central playmaker than a wide forward he is currently occupying. He is the type of player with the ability to drive forward with the ball at his feet and picks the right passes at the right time to split defenses.
Against Burundi, when Mikel was substituted, and he moved into the role, the dynamics of the team and tempo of the game changed, which suited the Eagles and they got their goal.
5. Chukwueze catches the eye
Samuel Chukwueze is only 20 years of age but has taken the world of football by storm with his impressive stats with Villareal in the 2018/2019 season. He scored 8 and assisted 2 in 38 matches for the Yellow Marines and was a constant threat to The Swallows in the Afcon opener.
His impressive runs presented a glorious chance in the first half but he could not keep his cool to finish the move. In a rather cagey affair in Alexandria, Chukwueze presented the spark as he turned, twisted, dribbled and at some stage broke the waist of a Burundi defender.
He offers a real threat and hope in the absent of Samuel Kalu and will become the player we want him to be if he keeps his cool and maintain a little composure. Inconsistency has always been a major problem for young players but Chukwueze could well become one of the stars of the tournament if Nigeria goes all the way to the finals.
6. Attacking options
The attacking players at the disposal of Coach Gernot Rhor are very interesting in this tournament. But against Burundi, Rhor gave Afcon debut to FC Midtjylland hitman, Paul Onuachu who scored 17 goals with 4 assists in the 2018/2019 Danish Superliga.
He had chances in the game to make his mark but failed to keep his composure and lasted 73 minutes without a sterling contribution.
Odion Ighalo has been a proven goalscorer over the years. He netted 21 times in 28 appearances for Changchun Yatai in 2018 and has already bagged 7 in 9 matches for Shanghai Shenhua this year in the Chinese Super League.
He has disappointed in several occasions but remains the most prolific and experience striker for the Super Eagles as was demonstrated just after four minutes of his introduction against Burundi with the winning goal.
Ighalo has made a very strong statement and will most definitely start against Guinea on Wednesday if Nigeria must win.
The likes of Victor Osimhen and Henry Onyekuru will be a handful for defenders but they must wait for their chances and hope to impress when they come.