Victor Moses’ brace set up the high-profile quarter-final showdown with the Elephants
By Tunde Sulaiman
In barely 24 hours time, Nigeria’s Super Eagles will face their moment of truth when they square up against Africa’s top-ranked football team, the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter-finals of the continent’s premier football competition for national teams.
At stake is not only a place in the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations, but perhaps more importantly for the Eagles the possible fate of their coach, Stephen Keshi and his technical crew as well as quite a number of players too.
Unfortunately, despite mouthing the right words and promising much, the nation’s longest-serving national team skipper has failed to inspire his wards to anywhere near the 1994 team he said he had in South Africa.
I have repeatedly said that Keshi to a large extent would bring pressure upon himself by making some statements that he cannot back up.
We all know how impressive the 94 set was – not only did they become the first squad to qualify for the World Cup they also followed up qualification for USA’94 with a second Nations Cup triumph in Tunisia.
If we must be truthful to ourselves the squad we have seen so far in three AFCON 2013 games is nowhere near the 1994 set.
But while it is easy to use hindsight to apportion blames, especially when things do not go according to plan, some of the team selections and tactical decisions taken by the coaching crew raise eyebrows.
A clear example was Tuesday’s night’s game against Ethiopia, with everybody aware that goals would decide if the Eagles finished top of Group C and therefore avoid the Elephants, the technical crew (possibly unaware of this) opted to shore up the defence by replacing John Mikel Obi with a defender, Joseph Yobo!
What was even more amazing in deciding on this option was the fact that the Walyas Antelopes were there for the taking after being reduced to 10 men and having an outfield player in goal!
So by that singular act (incidentally almost reminiscent of what happened during the reign of former coach Samson Siasia when faulty reading of the situation ensured that the 2-2 draw with Guinea in Abuja cost Nigeria an AFCON 2012 ticket and Siasia his job!) Nigeria now has to confront the “stronger” Group D side in Cote d’Ivoire and not the “weaker” runner-up, Togo.
Ironically, even the ’94 Eagles with all their stars struggled against the Elephants when they met in the race for the USA’94 ticket.
After taking the lead in the first leg played in Abidjan on May 2, 1993 courtesy of Rashidi Yekini, the Elephants rallied and eventually went on to win 2-1.
Nigeria did make amends four months later winning the return leg 4-1 in Lagos. However, in a reversal of what happened in Abidjan it was the Elephants who silenced the mammoth crowd at the National Stadium, Lagos when they took the lead. Nonetheless, a stunning free kick equaliser by Jay Jay Okocha launched the fight back.
This same opposition that has often caused Nigerians so much heartbreak in the past is whom the Eagles have to somehow find their best form to supplant on Sunday.
Both West African rivals have met a total of 16 times in the past (including the two I mentioned above) with the Francophone country holding the slight edge with five wins to Nigeria’s four.
The last competitive meeting between them was at the 2008 Nations Cup finals in Ghana which the Elephants managed to triumph over the Eagles 1-0 in Sekondi in a group tie.
However, on Sunday a winner must emerge being a knock out clash and on paper the odds look decidedly stacked against the Eagles going into the show-down at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg – venue of Eagles’ laboured victory over Ethiopia.
A look at the stats makes for a very sombre assessment of the chances of Nigeria for even the most ardent Eagles supporter.
While Nigeria has found both scoring and defending goals very difficult to come by having scored four (only two from open play) while letting in two in the three matches so far played; the Elephants have found both tasks much easier.
They have scored seven and just three (two scored in the meaningless third match against Algeria).
Apart from the Black Stars of Ghana, the Elephants have looked the most impressive side at the tournament, while the names of their players are perhaps the most high-profile on the continent.
So this brings me to the million naira question: can the Super Eagles find some form between their last game on Tuesday and Sunday to upstage the favourites?
While the answer is anyone’s guess, we all know that strange things have happened in football and anything is possible.
This Eagles squad may just do like their ’94 counterparts did at Tunisia’94 and cage the Elephants (incidentally that was the last time Nigeria beat Cote d’Ivoire at the Nations Cup finals losing at Egypt’96 and Ghana 2008).
But to do so they will have to put their money were their mouths are and show what they are capable of on the field of play.
After the game on Tuesday night Super Eagles’ Spartak Moscow forward, Emmanuel Emenike dismissed the threat posed by Cote d’Ivoire insisting that the Eagles were not afraid of playing the star-studded Elephants.
“At club level, I have played Barcelona before without being scared. Why should it be Ivory Coast that will give me and my colleagues’ sleepless nights?”
Emenike, who failed to shine against Ethiopia, went on to add: “You may think that most of the players are young and do not have the experience to play the Elephants of Ivory Coast, you are wrong. I respect the quality of players they are parading at this competition but we are certainly not afraid.”
Emenike’s lovely words will remain just that “boastful words” if the Eagles fail to fly in Sunday’s game.
All said and done I would love to know who will be man (or woman) enough to place his (her) bet on the Eagles ahead of Sunday’s game!
Of course I know many will want to know what my take on the game is. While my heart says Eagles, my mind is telling me Elephants!
On Sunday, we will know which is correct - my heart or mind.