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Eagles and the battles ahead

NIGERIA begins her quest to return to the African Cup of Na- tions with a crucial qualifier against South Africa in Uyo on June 10. To say this game should be treated with the seriousness it deserves is an understatement.

Some are wont to view the game as an easy one but such people must have very short memories. Our last game against Bafana Bafana at this same venue on November 19, 2014 was not a pleasant one. It should be noted that a draw with the South Afri- cans in Uyo ensured Nigeria did not feature at AFCON 2015.

Victory in that game would have given Super Eagles the group’s second qualifying ticket behind the South Africans. Com- placency was the team’s great- est undoing on the night. Eagles trailed by two goals before Sone Aluko’s brace denied South Africa a first competitive vic- tory over Nigeria. But that wasn’t enough as Congo beat Sudan in the group’s other fixture to finish second. That was a black night for Nigerian football. Agreed, signs of our dwindling fortunes in the round leather game had crept up but nobody reckoned we wouldn’t secure the much-needed three points against our ‘peren- nial’ whipping team.

Is it a coincidence that we are back to the same venue and

against the same opposition for the same ticket? I have set out to- day to bring some consciousness so that we take the game more se- riously. We are at that point again when we thought victory was as- sured in the game against Bafana Bafana.

That game was the last in the campaign and ultimately nailed our coffin but this is the curtain raiser. The need to begin the cam- paign on a high need not be over- emphasized. If we must take con- trol of the group as we have done in the World Cup qualifiers, the three points against South Africa are non-negotiable.

Gernot Rohr has just released a list of players for a certain friendly against Corsica and a training camp in France. Then he plans to release a separate list for the AFCON qualifier. We expect some additions and subtractions from this list when the final list is unveiled. But is it really nec- essary? What is the rationale be- hind having two separate lists? One understands he may need to see some players in closer quarters before making up his mind on them .why should there be additions apart from perhaps ;Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and possibly recuperating Mikel Obi . It is understandable if he has to prune down the team for the com- petitive fixture but which players

will be added? Why weren’t the players in the original list, even if he was sure they were go- ing to keep their places for the Uyo game and the other battles ahead.

There are the usual suspects. The likes of Ogenyi Onazi and Victor Moses are not in this initial list. It is hard to imagine Nigeria would go into a crucial game without rave of the mo- ment Moses. We all saw how he made the difference against Algeria in the World Cup quali- fier in Uyo. He would be coming into the game high in confidence after being crowned EPL cham- pion with Chelsea. You need players with such winning men- tality in your team.

I believe Moses is a front run- ner for the African Player of the Year award and, on current form, should influence any game on the continent. One only hopes the coaches will know how best to deploy him in the national team. At Chelsea, he currently plays as a wing back but in the national team, he plays further up. Rohr should reconcile the boy’s role in his club vis-à-vis the national team.How well he adapts in the two different for- mations will be crucial .

But the emergence of Wilfred Ndidi has put Onazi’s place in the team on the spot. Ndidi has been the reason for Leicester’s resurgence and should be the first midfielder in Rohr’s start- ing 11 for a big match. It’s now a case of who plays alongside Ndidi in the middle of the park. If all Rohr’s midfielders were to

be available, Ndidi should play beside Onazi in a twin central midfield formation while Mikel Obi plays in a more advanced role,hoping he makes the team. Ndidi’s tenacity and discipline should complement Onazi’s bursts and all-action disposition. The good thing about Ndidi is that he also scores his fair share of goals. He has an aerial pres- ence and shoots admirably well from long distance. A midfield combination of Ndidi and Onazi should provide some cover for the defense which is the weakest link in the team.

The defense has become Su- per Eagles’ albatross .The goal- keeping department is a major source of worry. I am becoming increasingly worried over Carl Ikeme’s injury woes. He has been unavailable for selection in recent times. There are also doubts over his back-up, Dan- iel Akpeyi. So do we have good replacements in Ikechukwu Ez- enwa and Dele Alampasu? What has happened to Emmanuel Dan- iel who performed so excellent- ly at the last Olympics that Ak- peyi was relegated to the bench? I remember Vincent Enyeama was in goal when we drew with Bafana Bafana in Uyo in 2014. If he let in two in that game, can we trust these younger keepers to keep the doors shut this time? The Goalkeepers trainer has a big task in his hands.

The two wing backs are the worse culprits . Nigerians still recall with nostalgia, the dexter- ity with which Austin Eguavon , Ben Iroha , Mobi Oparaku and

Celestine Babayaro manned the full backs. Ambrose Efe And Echejile have not been able to stamp their authority in recent years . Should we rely on She- hu Abdullahi who I admire so much because of his energy for the wing back? Coming through the age-group competitions , Musa Mohammed looked like a heir apparent , but the quality of league he plies his trade has not helped his career. Maybe the new young lads ; Ola Aina and Tyrone Ebuehi will feel the void

Then there is the issue of Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheana- cho, and Alex Iwobi who have been warming the bench in their respective clubs of late. We all know how inactive Musa is at Leicester. Does he have enough match fitness to deliver the goods? He has not been impres- sive in national colours in re- cent times. Is it unconnected to his lack of matches in his club? With the retinue of attacking talents within Rohr’s disposal, Musa’s place has become in- creasingly threatened.

The cheering news to me, is the call-up of Belgian Jupiler revelation, Henry Onyekuru who had before now failed to get Rohr’s attention. This is a boy that has scored 22 goals for KP Eupen this season and is being wooed by several top clubs in Europe. It must be noted that Ni- geria had not been to the last two editions of AFCON. Missing out a third time is unimaginable. Or what do you think?

• Till next week, keep at- tacking

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