Going into Sunday’s World Cup Qualifier with Namibia, Nigerian striker Ikechukwu Uche showed respect for the Super Eagles’ opposition, and played down suggestions that his side would rout the visitors. The Brave Warriors, brave as they might be, currently stand at 120 in FIFA’s world rankings – keeping company with minnows such as Luxembourg and Sao Tome e Principe. The game in Calabar was viewed by some portions of the Nigerian media, and by Super Eagles fans, as a certain three points and a comfortable home win against inferior opposition.
Uche took time to downplay this over-optimism. The matchup, he said, was not to be a goal fest or a walk over, nor would Nigeria easily score a hatful against the Namibians. The Aba-born forward insisted that the Namibian side would be hard to break down, and predicted that Nigeria would win, but only by the tightest of margins.
He was only half right.
Uche was accurate with regards the score line. The hard fought 1-0 win may be sufficient for Vincent Enyeama, who captained the side in Joseph Yobo’s absence, and for Stephen Keshi – who claimed that a win, any win, would be considered a successful afternoon for his side.
The word from the hierarchy at the NFF however was that only an effective and fruitful display by Nigeria’s strikers would be sufficient. The patron of the technical committee, Chris Green suggested that only a ‘good result’ – i.e. a victory by more than one goal – would be acceptable, whilst even Goal.com’s own Babajide Alaka argued that the Super Eagles were hoping to win big against their Namibian opposition. The opposition head coach Cyril Tim Isaacs chipped in before the game as well, commenting that the Nigerians would be under great pressure to get a result in the U.J. Esuene Stadium.
On the nature of the performance however, and more specifically, Namibian resilience – Uche was wrong. Nigeria’s tight victory, the winner being scored with little over ten minutes to play, was a consequence not of Namibian resistance and opposition, but rather of Nigerian profligacy. The Super Eagles created aplenty, seemingly tearing through the Namibian defence at will, only to be denied by their own ineffective finishing, or the impressive Virgil Vries in goal.
The mood in the stadium gently changed from euphoric and excited to edgy and frustrated as chance after chance slipped anxiously wide, was clawed inches away, or floated impotently over the bar.
Uche, perhaps the main culprit, had an overhead kick cleared off the line early on, Obiorah, a late replacement for Fegor Ogude, tested his luck with a long range effort that failed to find the net, another Uche chance flew over, whilst a third touched the Namibian post, all before the match had reached the half hour mark. With a John Utaka effort being chalked off as offside, the mood in the ground began to change from undiluted optimism to a brooding unease. Would this be ‘one of those days’, with chances squandered and three points eventually surrendered? It certainly began to feel that way as time ticked on and the Brave Warriors grew in confidence and stature.
Despite offering some semblance of threat in the second half, Namibia were unable to truly trouble Nigeria, and it was that man Uche, so humble before the game, so profligate within it, who managed to secure the win. The Granada striker reaffirmed his class at this level by composing himself and finishing calmly past Vries, prompting a vocal release of strain from the considerable number of Nigerians in attendance. Mindful, surely, of the mounting tension in the stadium, it was the finish of a striker who is finally beginning to come of age as an older head amongst the Super Eagles – despite today’s earlier missed chances.
Stephen Keshi’s remoulded Nigerian side are far from the complete article; the clamour is for perfection – as proved by those expecting a demolition of Namibia, and whilst this level of coherency isn’t on the horizon just yet, there are some positives to be taken from a bright Nigerian side.
Victor Moses is looking like an exciting option for the Super Eagles. Quiet today maybe, but the zealous attention which Angula Da Costa paid him betrayed Namibian instructions to silence the Wigan front man – it is testament to the impact that his explosive pace and incisive movement can have at this level. Similarly, the youngsters Reuben Gabriel and Ejike Uzoenyi, both based domestically, and both impressive in February’s friendly defeat to Peru, were industrious and composed, ensuring that Nigeria both regained possession when lost, kept possession, and were able to use it – consistently feeding in their front three. Uzoenyi was particularly impressive, and appears to have settled remarkably well on this stage.
It seems that up top may be where Keshi’s problems start. The recently recalled John Utaka has excelled for Montpellier this season, and as explored recently by Goal.com, is excited about, and committed to, his international future. He was guilty of spawning chances today though, and an improvement in execution is needed across Nigeria’s striking options.
What price for a striker in the mould, and with the terrific consistency, of the late RashidI Yekini – who was commemorated by the players in the training t-shirts they wore before kick off? Perhaps a physical presence is needed to capitalise on the fantastic chances created by the likes of Uzoenyi and Moses. Still, it was three points, a hard-fought home win, and, considering the tests that lie ahead in Kenya and Malawi, perhaps an invaluable step towards qualification for Brazil’s World Cup showpiece.
In a day that will be remembered in Nigeria for so much more than football, the Super Eagles proved that all hope is not lost, and that green shoots can emerge on the darkest of days.
Ed Dove, London