Keshi’s Bold Statement
Posted: May 24, 2012
SUPER Eagles coach Stephen Keshi made a bold statement of intent last week when he released his list of players to prosecute Nigeria’s crucial qualifying matches slated for next month. On the Eagles’ June 2012 calendar are two 2014 World Cup games against Namibia and Malawi followed by a 2013 African Cup of Nations return match against Rwanda in a crowded and potentially slippery fixture list.
Dropped from Keshi’s squad were four high-profile English Premier League (EPL) stars led by Chelsea midfielder Mikel Obi who last week emerged as Nigeria’s latest European Champions League winner; striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni who finished with 17 goals for Blackburn Rovers in the just-concluded season; left full- back Taye Taiwo who survived relegation with Queens Park Rangers on the last day of the season; and Osaze Odemwingie who grabbed 10 goals for West Bromwich Albion.
Of the foursome, only Osaze’s exclusion is understood to be circumstantial as his wedding falls due during the qualifiers. Yakubu and Taye were dropped presumably because they were surplus to requirement, while Mikel was axed most likely because he hadn’t convinced the coach about his commitment to the new dispensation, although the coach denies any rift with the player.
I was still reflecting on Keshi’s bold move and its possible implications when news came through that captain Joseph Yobo who was originally called up had been forced to pull out of the qualifiers due to injury. That left goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and controversial returnee striker John Utaka as the only “senior” players in Keshi’s squad for three highly sensitive qualifying matches in June.
The coach had promised to rebuild the national team following his appointment last November. He has gone on to cap a number of home-based players as he experimented with several friendly matches.
But this squad list for the crucial June fixtures is the clearest evidence yet that the Big Boss means big business with his rebuilding agenda.
If the results are good, the agenda will be well and truly under way as players that have been left out now may find it hard regaining their places in the team. But if the results go wrong, the rebuilding agenda may boomerang prematurely as the coach may lose face and be forced to return to the “senior” players. I hope it is the first scenario that comes to pass. Keshi’s new boys must rise to the occasion and justify the gaffer’s trust in their ability. They must not let him down.
In my view, the most problematic areas on the field for the Super Eagles are the creative midfield and the forward line. Ahead of the Nations Cup qualifier first leg against Rwanda in Kigali last February, I warned particularly about the deficiency in our creative midfield and how it could be hard for our strikers to find goals without the necessary creative support . With Inter Milan’s Joel Obi forced out of the current squad by injury, Keshi will be relying on Valerenge of Norway’s Fengor Ogude to create the play. Ogude is a strong and promising player but I wish Keshi had also invited Espanyol’s Kalu Uche to increase his options in that key department. It could still be the Eagles’ Achilles heel.
In attack, Yakubu’s exclusion caught me by surprise because I thought he did fairly well in Kigali though he didn’t score. Instead of the Yak, Keshi has picked the prolific Ikechukwu Uche and recalled Utaka from international wilderness, claiming he had been following the latter’s resurgence at Montpellier. The French league does not enjoy the kind of following in Nigeria that the EPL enjoys, so we have to rely on the coach’s assessment that Utaka is a better gamble than Yakubu. Victor Moses on the other hand is definitely a popular choice because of his outstanding performances for Wigan Athletic in the just-concluded season. Besides, he made a good impression in his Eagles debut as a substitute in Kigali. I’m expecting him to score his first Eagles goal(s) in the June fixtures.
The fact that Keshi called up only three defenders from Europe in his original squad list before Yobo’s withdrawal reduced them to two (Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile) shows clearly that the coach has decided to build his defence around domestic league players. That is not surprising because during the era of Clemens Westerhof which is a reference point for rebuilding the Eagles, it was in defence that home-based players always enjoyed greater opportunities for selection. Keshi knows the story too well having been Westerhof’s captain. He will miss Yobo’s experience and leadership, but the home lads will still be able to cope better in defence than in creative midfield and attack where greater awareness and precision are required.
And with goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama taking over the captain’s arm band in Yobo’s absence, a rallying voice in defence will not be lacking in the heat of battle.
Nevertheless, former Eagles captain and member of the Nigeria Football Federation technical committee, Austin Okocha, has repeated his warning against a wholesale exclusion of “senior” players from the Eagles. He wasn’t reacting to Keshi’s list per se having made his comment before Keshi announced his squad. But Keshi will do well to keep the warning in mind in his final team selection for the crucial games in June.
Last week, I read about his frustration as the home lads struggled to break down a team of amateurs in the Nigerian Nationwide League, Mountain of Fire &Miracles (MFM) Football Club, before scraping a 2-0 win. I hope they will enjoy a better showing in the international friendly against Peru to put them in a better frame of mind ahead of the clashes with Namibia, Malawi and Rwanda.
Having failed to qualify for the last African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria must not stumble a second time. As for the World Cup, it suffices to say that a good start to the qualifying race is absolutely essential to boost morale.
Chelsea’s Fairy Tale
CHELSEA Football Club of England completed their fairy tale run in the 2011/2012 European Champions League by winning the trophy last weekend in Munich. Playing against several odds (as usual), the Blues tactically dragged the final into extra time before out-shooting Bayern Munich 4-3 on penalties.
The final was a replay of Chelsea’s heroic semi-final victory over Barcelona in many ways. Like Barca, Bayern dominated possession for most of the game and created more scoring chances, although not as clear-cut as Barca’s. The Germans finally broke the deadlock in the 82nd minute through Thomas Muller’s header only for Didier Drogba to pull the Londoners level with his own powerful header with just two minutes of regulation time remaining.
In extra time, Bayern got a penalty after Drogba (again) fouled Frank Ribery just like he had fouled Cesc Fabregas and conceded a penalty in Barcelona. But just as Barca’s star player Lionel Messi failed to score at Camp Nou, Bayern’s star player Arjen Robben also could not convert at the Allianz Arena. Extra time finished with the score still tied at 1-1.
On to the penalty shoot-out, the post inevitably came to Chelsea’s rescue (like in Barcelona) on Bayern’s last kick by Mario Gomez, leaving Drogba to emerge the match hero by dispatching Chelsea’s final kick. Chelsea worked really hard for their victory and they were deserving winners in the end. But it is impossible not to see the heavy hand of fate in their triumph. It is written all over.
I was told that Chelsea fans back in Nigeria went absolutely bonkers and fireworks rent the air in Lagos and other places when Drogba delivered the coup-de-grace. Earlier in the day, I had seen on the internet a cow painted from head to toe in the club’s colours waiting to be slaughtered in anticipation of victory. If they’re reading this, I hope the celebrants will reserve my share of the meat.
By contrast, the mood here in Germany was expectedly one of great disappointment for Bayern and their fans. A visit to the supermarket just before the game revealed empty stores as the whole country massed behind “FC Hollywood” with great expectation of a fifth European title. The German commentator who I was told was rather over-confident had predicted a Bayern victory. But at the final whistle, even my host was so disappointed that he simply quietly crawled to bed.
My take on Chelsea’s victory is that fate decided to finally reward club owner Roman Abramovich for his huge spending and also compensate the club for their painful loss also in a penalty shoot-out to Manchester United in the 2008 final in Moscow. Chelsea’s name has finally entered the list of great European club sides and it is a thing of pride that several African players, including our own Mikel Obi, are part of the story.
Congratulations to all Chelsea fans in Nigeria. Yes, I agree: the Colour is Blue!
PS: Chelsea are the first team to beat an opponent playing at home (Bayern in Munich) in a European Champions League final under the present format. But they follow in the footsteps of Liverpool who were the last team to beat an opponent playing at home in the final (Roma in Rome) under the old European Champions Cup format in 1984. Liverpool won the match (4-2 on penalties after full-time and extra-time ended 1-1) to lift the trophy.
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