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Predicting the Nigeria Squad ahead of the Afcon

15 Jan

Predicting the Nigeria Squad ahead of the Afcon
With the Venezuela friendly fresh in the memory, and the Afcon less than 8 weeks away, Ed Dove makes some early predictions on the make up of the Nigerian squad. Continue reading

Taye Taiwo: Super Eagle in the Spotlight

15 Jan

Taye Taiwo: Super Eagle in the Spotlight
As questions of squad selection sharpen in the minds of Super Eagles fans, Goal Nigeria runs the rule over some of those players unsure of their place in Stephen Keshi’s plans. This first article considers the claims and credentials of Taye Taiwo

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The People Have Spoken: The fans’ view on Nigeria’s Afcon squad

15 Jan

The People Have Spoken: The fans’ view on Nigeria’s Afcon squad Continue reading

Super Eagle in the Spotlight – Onuoha: Should Nedum come home?

15 Jan

Super Eagle in the Spotlight – Onuoha: Should Nedum come home?

Onuoha has become a player that splits opinion among Super Eagle fans – this article considers the questions and quandaries surrounding a potential move for the QPR man.
With the Goal Nigeria offices inundated with responses to our Obafemi Martins Quiz Spectacular, the editorial team have begun to garner a fair idea of the wants and wishes of Super Eagles fans. With many astute opinions, and several thorough suggestions from potential Naija managers, trends have been spotted and consensuses have been forged.
A common bone of contention among Goal Nigeria readers was Nigeria’s defence, or rather lack of it. Uninspired by the recent form of Joseph Yobo, unconvinced by the nascent careers of Godfrey Oboabona or Azubuike Egwuekwe, uncomfortable with the prospect of Taye Taiwo making a return to the national fold, one name has returned in your suggestions time and time again.
Nedum Onuoha.
But even though defensive issues are often cited, and even though Onuoha would appear to be a ready-made problem solver, the defender has split opinions and proved to be a divisive topic among you essay writers.
The comments received have fallen into one of three categories.
Primarily, there are those that see Onuoha as ‘the answer’, those that are aware of the defensive frailties in the Nigeria camp, and see the Q.P.R. man as the perfect solution to any wobbles that the Super Eagles may have. Advocates of Onuoha range from those who merely support the player’s candidacy, those aware of his qualities, and his experience, to those who would implore, or even beg the former City man to commit to the Super Eagles! Nyong Asido even went as far as to suggest that Onuoha was a ‘magnificent player’ and a ‘goalscorer’. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
The other two categories profess slightly different pathways.
There are those who see no merit in the versatile defender, and thus no place for him among Nigeria’s elite of 23. They are those who argue that the player is overhyped. Indeed, it has been a long time since Onuoha has played a settled 90 minutes in an assured defensive performance. After failing to muscle his way into Manchester City’s moneyed XI, he made his way to London, and Q.P.R., where a generous £46,000-a-week contract is yet to look like value for money.
Perhaps Onuoha simply isn’t good enough to feature for Naija – after 16 starts for Q.P.R. last season, where he often featured on the opposite flank to fellow would-be Super Eagle Taye Taiwo, his progress has been somewhat stunted this season. Certainly Asido’s suggestion that the player might contribute to Nigeria as a goalscorer doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, certainly not this term – one shot and one cross are the sum total of his key attacking contributions.
One wonder goal against Chelsea in November 2010 does not a goalscorer make.
This season, Onuoha’s Q.P.R. contribution has been undistinguished, a combination of injury and upheaval have seen him displaced from the side, and with only one clean sheet in nine appearances, the likes of Jose Bosingwa, Ryan Nelsen, Stephane M’Bia, and even Clint Hill and Shaun Derry have usurped him in the proverbial pecking order. He hasn’t featured for the Rs since the beginning of November, and it’s hard to imagine him not lacking some match sharpness.
However, whilst Onuoha is perhaps not a £46,000-a-week player, it’s hard to argue that he’s not a seasoned Premier League-quality star. In just under a hundred games for City, in 30 on loan at Sunderland, and 25 with Q.P.R. to date, the Warri-born defender has proved himself to be a steady performer and a consummate professional. At City they still refer to his excellent comportment and his admirable work ethic, whilst his credentials as a sportsman – his impressive physique, flawless fitness, and athletic abilities – are easily spotted. Onuoha has also been identified as a leader; composed with the ball at his feet, and an excellent reader of the game, he was cited as a major contributor to Q.P.R.’s survival last season – their improved defensive record at home ultimately a major factor in their retained Premier League status.
There are certainly qualities there, and attributes that would be valuable in the heart of a Nigeria defence that shipped two away in Liberia in September – that’s the same Liberia team that are currently ranked 114th in the FIFA World Rankings.
But there are caveats to the Nedum debate, and those Goal Nigeria readers that fall into the third category are aware of these exterior circumstances.
This category features those more reasoned observers, those that accept and acknowledge Nedum’s qualities and virtues, but who are hesitant to welcome him into the Super Eagles fold with open arms – and who certainly draw the line at begging the 26-year old to slip into that famous dark green of Nigeria.
There is some history to this cautious stance. Onuoha was first called up to play for the Super Eagles back in 2007, and since then he has endured an on-off relationship with the land of his ancestors. Initially, one can perhaps forgive his hesitancy, having been a stalwart of the U21s, and emerging into an exciting City team, the appeal of England was too great, and the defender preferred to bide his time and await any possible opportunity with the Three Lions, rather than throw his hat into the ring with Nigeria prematurely.
Now though, five years down the line, the dynamic of the situation has changed, and Onuoha surely must be aware that any potential career with England has passed. With the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Stephen Caulker being capped for the national side in recent times, it’s clear that Nedum has a lot of ground to make up on his progressive peers.
Musa Amadu, the General Secretary of the NFF recently suggested that for Onuoha to even be considered for Super Eagle selection, he would have to show a categorical desire to represent the national side. Without this, Amadu claimed, it would be unlikely that Keshi and the other senior figures in the federation would compromise their own integrity in chasing the player.
Indeed, would Nigeria accept being sloppy seconds for a player who is struggling to even break into the Q.P.R. team rooted to the foot of the Premier League? Would there be hostility towards the player, or would things unfold as they did with Shola Ameobi, who was eventually welcomed into the camp after expressing his explicit desire to play for the land of his forefathers and having his change in nationality ratified?
Ultimately, would Onuoha even be a benefit to Nigeria’s defence?
I cast my mind back to Sekou Oliseh troubling our centre-backs in Monrovia, and I’m inclined to think he would.

Super Eagles v. Superstars – Nigeria/Catalonia in Preview

15 Jan

Super Eagles v. Superstars – Nigeria/Catalonia in Preview examines the importance of Nigeria’s clash with Catalonia, as Stephen Keshi and his boys continue with their final Afcon preparations
As the world recoils from a week of festivities, and awakens, bleary eyed into the aftermath of another New Year’s Eve, Stephen Keshi and his Super Eagles will be gazing coldly ahead at the promise and prerequisites of January and February. These two months carry gravitas untapped for Keshi’s collective, and come the end of this period, the lives of some of his Super Eagle selection may well have changed forever.
Many key narratives will unravel and unfold between now and February the 10th, when the continent’s top two sides will battle for the Afcon title at the National Stadium in Johannesburg. Will Victor Moses prove himself on the continental stage? Will John Obi Mikel finally play as the midfield general we have been demanding? Will Joseph Yobo win the title he has desired for so long?
Answers may begin to emerge as early as 2nd January, when the Super Eagles come up against Catalonia at the Estadi Cornellà El Prat, the home ground of Espanyol. Whilst the match itself is primarily a gateway to the ensuing Cup of Nations, an overture to the chief spectacle, it is also a little drama all of its own – an engrossing prospect and an occasion that has the potential to set the tone for 2013.
Initially, it’s important to iterate that even though Catalonia aren’t (yet) a nation, and aren’t allowed to compete in official FIFA competitions, this bout will be a contest as tough as any Nigeria have faced in 2012. The dominance of Barcelona, and the fertile affluence of its La Masia academy have furnished the Catalonian national side with talent that would demand attention in any of the world’s official national sides. In fact, the current World and European champions Spain have – as is to be expected – a large overlap in personnel with La Segadora.
The squad called up to face Nigeria has no fewer than 10 Barcelona players in its ranks. Victor Valdes, deputy to Iker Casillas for Spain, but undisputed No. 1 for Catalonia, is likely to start, whilst the defence could feature Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Jordi Alba. World Cup winning left-back Joan Capdevila is also in the squad, whilst Xavi and Sergio Busquets will provide effortless control in the colours of the Catalan XI. A multitude of options up top include former La Masia prodigy Bojan, Jonathan Soriano, and Barca youngster Cristian Tello.
Evidently, this band of superstars would be a match for any international outfit, and when you consider the added aspect of the outgoing Johan Cruyff – a legend in the North East, and sure to receive an emotionally charged send off from the job he has held since 2009, you could understand Keshi not envying the challenge that awaits his men in green.
But confidence is high, equalled only by a nation’s expectation, and this match, a once-in-a-lifetime contest, will mean everything to those chosen to participate.
Who is that likely to be?
As is often the case with friendly matches so close to an international centrepiece, the manager is charged with the dual tasks of further assessing players and finalising his squad, and also developing and establishing a style of play and a relationship and understanding between his first XI.
The previous friendly against Venezuela appeared to focus on the former objective, with new players such as Solomon Kwambe, Shola Ameobi, and Bright Dike given a run out at the expense of more established names. Observers saw Keshi attempting to form a ‘Plan B’, a more attacking option at full back, and a more physical approach up-top – selection choices that may well provide invaluable variation come the tournament’s latter phases.
Since the Big Boss named his initial list of 32, attention has focused on those players excluded from the squad; Martins’s omission, Odemwingie’s fit of pique, Alan Pardew casting doubts over the participation of Ameobi, and Danny Shittu’s request to opt-out of the tournament. Come January 2nd, however, and attention will once again turn to those players chosen to carry Naija’s baton in South Africa, and to represent their countrymen at the continent’s high table.
Will Keshi, as reports suggest, take the opportunity of a match against such high quality opposition to blood some of his domestic-based players against the kind of quality that they will never have encountered in the Nigerian Premier League? In a move unprecedented for the Super Eagles since the early 90s, roughly a third of the preliminary squad was made up of players plying their trade in the local league. Shunning many of the Nigerian diaspora, Keshi has focused on those players that have excelled in the NPL, and it will be the daunting challenges of January, beginning in Catalonia, that will prove whether his faith has been well-founded.
Historians among you will recall the successes that both Egypt, and more recently, Zambia, have enjoyed in the Nations Cup, employing a crux of players drawn from local leagues, and perhaps investing more in the team ethic. Maybe the likes of Oboabona, Uzoenyi, and Reuben Gabriel will prove themselves to be of the talent required to compete against the continent’s finest – this rite of passage begins against Catalonia next week.
Whilst a repeat of the last match between the two sides – a 5-0 defeat for Nigeria – would be a veritable disaster ahead of the Afcon, Keshi is right to suggest that the result is of secondary importance, with a competent performance by the players selected being the prime requirement. Playing against the superstars of Catalonia, this will be no simple task, but those Super Eagles selected have an irresistible opportunity to not only test their mettle against some of the world’s finest, but also to set the tone for 2013, and the Afcon that awaits.

Afcon success appears doubtful for Nigeria after Cape Verde display

15 Jan

Afcon success appears doubtful for Nigeria after Cape Verde display
While Nigeria’s friendly against Cape Verde in Faro on Wednesday was a fascinating window into Stephen Keshi’s mindset ahead of the Afcon, questions remain about the makeup and plan of the Super Eagles’ squad.
Cape Verde in Faro were Nigeria’s penultimate stepping stone ahead of Africa’s continental centrepiece beginning next week. But instead of striding boldly forward towards a tournament that some expect them to conquer, Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles enter South Africa stumbling and stuttering. What can be taken from a day when much was revealed about the coach’s mindset and the squad’s philosophy ahead of Afcon 2013?
Much of the talk ahead of the match centred on Bright Dike, and the Portland Timbers frontman’s exclusion from Keshi’s final list of 23. As my colleague, and Goal Nigeria deputy editor Babajide Alaka concluded yesterday, Dike’s omission, and the inclusion of Enugu Rangers man Sunday Mba is ‘baffling’. Many observers were warmly encouraged by Dike’s performance against Catalonia, and suspected that the USA-based frontman had done enough to convince Keshi of his worth.
Writing last week, I surmised that in the absence of a whole host of Super Eagle hotshots: Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, Sone Aluko, as well as ‘Plan B’ Shola Ameobi, Dike would travel with the squad as Keshi’s muscle-off-the-bench, his physical game changer, his injection of energy and impact late in the day. It seems I, and many others, were wrong, and Dike will watch on with the rest of us as the Super Eagles take on the continent.
Dismay in some quarters of Naija support was compounded by the side’s insipid attacking display in Faro. As Dike was so forceful and assertive in his finish against Xavi, Puyol, Valdes, and Co, so Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses were limp and disappointing, the latter lashing out after a rash tackle, and being replaced at the break.
Ideye Brown added some impetus after his introduction, with Nigeria growing into the game in the second half, but Keshi is unlikely to be encouraged by the displays of his chosen attacking options following this friendly.
Regarding Nigeria’s midfield trio, all eyes were on John Obi Mikel.
Two key questions are awaiting response from the Chelsea-man during this Cup of Nations, and Wednesday night provided little in the way of conclusive response. Firstly, will Mikel perform at this tournament, will he finally demonstrate his desire to wear the famous green of Nigeria, and will he, after such a long wait, begin grabbing international matches by the throat and dominating the middle of the park as he has long threatened to do? There is a top class performer in there, but too often the maestro is absent.
Secondly, how will Mikel be utilised, or rather, how will Keshi employ the player to capitalise on his diverse talents? Ideally, I believe Mikel could be the side’s midfield general and play-prompter, employing his vision and passing to control the game for Naija and dictate our rhythm. However, this direction would ideally require some sort of stability alongside him, and unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence that Keshi’s elect can provide this.
Ogenyi Onazi was ineffectual, and was eventually replaced, whilst Fegor Ogunde was even more disappointing, and came in for some criticism from Nigerian supporters who struggle to see exactly what the player brings to the team, particularly in the wilderness of the first half.
I have previously championed the cause of Raheem Lawal, the energetic, all-action Demirspor midfielder, and I had hoped that he could provide stability in the middle of the park. Alas, Lawal has been cast away by Keshi, and the wisest solution now may well be to give a slightly more reserved role to Mikel. Whilst this may well compromise the Chelsea player’s ability to influence proceedings in the final third, it could give Naija much needed constancy and control in the middle of the park, and may well encourage and permit the more attacking talents of Onazi, Obiorah, and Igiebor to flourish. Incidentally, the Real Betis man made his entrance at half time and delivered an encouraging 45 minute cameo – perhaps it is he that holds the creative keys to the Super Eagles.
Despite preserving a clean sheet, it was Nigeria’s defence that provoked the most dander from supporters. Austin Ejide was selected ahead of Enyeama and Agbim, but departed the field of play in the first half after going to ground clutching his hamstring. A worrying sign for the keeper and for Naija fans, but not for Enyeama, who looked relieved to take to the field and once more find himself holding the fort between the sticks.
Keshi perplexed many by opting for Godfrey Oboabona in the middle of the defence, and playing Celtic man Efe Ambrose at right back. The reshuffle didn’t work, with Oboabona looking unconvincing, and Ambrose being troubled endlessly on the flank. Regularly caught out for pace, and looking increasingly unsteady and bewildered, the experiment was ended prematurely at half-time, with Kenneth Omeruo brought on to replace the floundering fullback.
Omeruo was altogether more convincing, and managed to marry defensive solidarity with the occasional attacking threat. A more measured option than the discarded Solomon Kwambe, and considerably more mobile than Ambrose, the youngster impressed and may well find himself in pole position to take the right back berth. Juwon Oshaniwa has also been selected, and provides another option, although will primarily be seen as backup to Elderson – another who endured an uncomfortable evening.
The second half brought improvement from Nigeria, and some solace. Occasionally, in golden glimpses, we saw what Mikel could and should be for this Super Eagle generation, as he took the ball under control, looked up, and conducted the action. It’s trite to suggest that the fate of this tournament rests upon his broad shoulders, but it’s hard to overlook the potential influence that he could have on this team.
As for Cape Verde, the side were much as we expected, determination and organisation – two most valuable qualities at international level, if not any level. The loss of Braga striker Zé Luis – who misses the tournament due to ‘personal issues’ is a real blow, but don’t be surprised to see the islanders upset the applecart once again.

Nigeria v. Catalonia – Strikers and Homegrown performers inspire confidence

15 Jan

Nigeria v. Catalonia – Strikers and Homegrown performers inspire confidence
With Wednesday’s impressive outing against Catalonia still fresh in the minds of Super Eagles fans, Goal Nigeria considers some of the positives to be taken from the performance of Stephen Keshi’s elect.
Strikers write their own futures
As I considered in my previous article, previewing this matchup, a great deal of coverage preceding Nigeria’s Afcon campaign has centred around and focused upon those players who have been omitted from the squad, rather than those who will be making the trip to South Africa. The column inches have been dominated by Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins – two tip top hotshots, neither of whom will be adding to their Afcon tallies any time soon.
                Similarly, Shola Ameobi – a new addition to the international fold, but now out of the equation having been convinced by his club manager Alan Pardew to stay at Newcastle and try and help the club rise from their sticky situation just above the league’s trapdoor. Whilst the response to Ameobi’s abdication from Stephen Keshi and others at the NFF has been, outwardly, all good nature and benevolence, I can’t help but imagine a tempered bristling in the federation’s hallowed corridors as Ameobi, hardly a spring chicken at 31, has refused the chance to compete on the international stage with the Super Eagles.
                I had interpreted Ameobi’s inclusion against Venezuela in November’s Miami friendly as a sign that Keshi was thinking about a Plan B for the Afcon. Aware of the need to diversify his attacking options, particularly against the more resilient opponents likely to be encountered in the latter stages, Ameobi was included to offer a physical, imposing, experienced counterpoint to the plucky bucks of Musa, Moses, and Ikechukwu Uche. This view was enforced with the exclusions of Odemwingie and Martins from Keshi’s initial squad of 32 – why include a pair of swift, sharp strikers who offer little variety from the first XI, when you can count on the presence and aerial threat of Ameobi?
                Well now all three of them will be missing from the continental centrepiece, and you could perhaps have forgiven a sliver of regret in Keshi’s heart as he strode out to face Catalonia at the Estadi Cornellà El Prat on Wednesday.
                And then Bright Dike turned up, six foot one of Oklahoma thoroughbred – and it was as thought the MLS couldn’t keep their Nigerian powerhouse under wraps any longer, soon we all knew about him; Victor Valdes didn’t see him coming, Carles Puyol couldn’t prevent his vision and desire, and Xavi Hernandez could only watch and admire as the Portland Timbers striker burst through the backline and put the Super Eagles in a position of parity with the Spanish sporting equivalent of the Royal Family.
                Back in the middle of November, I predicted Nigeria’s Cup of Nations team and placed Dike in the ‘unlikely’ column for strikers – suggesting that his chances of making the tournament squad were slim at best. Now, one swallow does not a summer make, but after taking on some of the world’s finest and somersaulting himself into the starlight, Dike may well be the ace up Keshi’s sleeve, and the physical Plan B Nigeria need as the optimism of January becomes the asperity of  February.
                Homegrown Players – A Sturdy Bunch
Another issue that perturbed this correspondent concerned the fortitude and moral fibre of our domestic-based players when taxed with trials the like of which had never before been encountered. It is one thing to be placed under the spotlight in an Afcon qualifier in Monrovia, one thing to represent Naija in a glitzy friendly in Florida, but another thing altogether, a whole different ballgame, to take on the world’s finest on their own patch, and keep one’s composure and not yield.
                The Catalonia team that took on the Super Eagles contained World Cup winners, European Championship winners, Champions League winners, La Liga winners, men who have taken on the globe and returned as conquering heroes, the scalps of a generation’s finest around their necks. Nigeria at home, an experimental side shorn of some of their stars, ought not to have provided too stern a challenge, particularly considering the sentimental value attached to the spectacle of the departing Johan Cruyff – a true legend in that part of the world.
                With Danny Shittu having ruled himself out of contention, and the likes of Onyekachi Apam and Taye Taiwo not making the cut for Keshi’s squad, there was a danger that Nigeria would take on La Segadora without the nous and experience needed to compete with such a seasoned collection of professionals. As Catalonia took the lead early on through a Sergio Gonzalez, it would have been natural had a few younger heads dipped at the prospect of pulling a goal back against a side that contained no fewer than ten Barcelona stars.
                But they didn’t, and Dike’s 55thminute equaliser coupled with the team’s sustained vigour and enthusiasm gave the impression of a side short neither on confidence nor endeavour. Fegor Ogunde, who ‘handed’ Catalonia a penalty on three minutes, was not cowed by his pricey error, and nor was the Super Eagles’ captain, keeper Chigozie Agbim, phased by conceding so early on.
                Despite being starved of the ball throughout the game, and with a repeat of 1998’s 5-0 defeat against the same opposition looming large in their memory, it was conceivable that Keshi’s men could have crumbled at losing the early goal. Instead, they held firm, remained resolved, and when the boss brought in some of the more experienced cavalry at half term, they were in a position to seek out some compensation from their regal hosts. Credit must also go to two Europe-based youngsters, Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo, both of whom looked mature beyond their years when faced with much more established opponents.
                Still, there is some room for improvement, and whilst Godfrey Oboabona will fancy his chances of partnering Joseph Yobo against Burkina Faso on January 21 after an impressive display, the likes of Solomon Kwambe, Benjamin Francis, and Sunday Mba will have to up their game to bring the continent’s finest prize back to Lagos.         
Ed Dove

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