By Duro Ikhazuagbe
New Bafana Bafana Head Coach, Stuart Baxter, warned Nigerians 48 hours before last Saturday’s embarrassing 2-0 defeat of Super Eagles. Baxter said he was coming to Uyo to win. Nobody took him serious. Nigerians thought it was going to be the usual easy ride over the men from Mandela’s country. Now we know better.
Instead of seating at the top of the AFCON 2019 Group E qualifying round on same three points with Libya, who took Seychelles to the cleaners, Eagles have returned to the permutation game again! Are we going to qualify or not? Miss three Nations Cup editions in a row? Clearly unthinkable but the reality is starring us in the face with Bafana Bafana victory at the Nest of Champions.
Of course, Franco-German Eagles Technical Adviser, Gernot Rohr, who has had a jolly ride since he was appointed some months ago is seeing the other side of football crazy Nigerians. He’s getting flak here and there. Nobody wants to know this is the first defeat Eagles have suffered under his watch in nine games. The 2-0 defeat remains a nightmare of some sort.
But Baxter made it clear when he was appointed weeks ago that he was not bothered by the arrays of stars in Nigeria’s camp. What mattered to him was getting the South African squad to play as a unit.
On arrival in Uyo last Thursday, a confident Baxter told reporters he has the key to unlock Eagles. “We don’t have the big stars but we have a team. Every Africa nation faces the same problem but then the coaches try to balance the stars and others to make the difference.
“We are not going to play defensive or careful because Nigeria has good players. We should not be intimidated by anybody. Nigeria is the favourite for this game but will South Africa be intimidated? No. We are confident in the way we are approaching the game at the moment but the players know what to do to get the job done. The players are hopeful ahead of the game but not intimidated,” Baxter warned as a matter of fact. He was ignored at our peril.
Now, Rohr must have learnt a lesson or two from Baxter. The Eagles gaffer must have realised that playing in big clubs in Europe does not translate to success. In the Bafana starting 11, only two players Dolly Larenzo Keagan who plays for Montpellier in France and Turkey-based Rantie Tokelo came from outside the South African league. The reserve bench of the South Africans was also dominated by players from the PSL. What this means is that the players know themselves and have a sort of synergy. The chemistry was the same. But unfortunately, the mix of young and old players that Rohr fielded lacked the bite and that never-say die spirit that keeps Eagles going. How on earth Rohr expected his defensive midfield approach to the game to work when Eagles forward combination of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Moses Daddy Simon played like strangers? Oghenekaro Etebor too appeared off duty last Saturday as most of his incursions deep into the Bafana goal areas ended with no goal. On one or two of such, Etebo blasted wide when a simple pass to Simon could have made the difference. There was nobody in the middle to hold on to the ball and do the playmaking role. John Mikel Obi’s absence clearly showed and for 90 minutes, Rohr didn’t know that his game plan wasn’t working. The Wilfred Ndidi we saw against South Africa was clearly a different chap who has become the darling of Leicester City fans.
Eagles backline didn’t fare any better. By my rating, only Williams Troost Ekong stood out of the floundering pack. His pairing in the central defence with Chidozie Awazie too looked shaky for the better part of the second half. Shehu Abdullahi can be forgiven for the type of school-boy errors but certainly not Elderson Echiejile. Was he also on recess last Saturday?
When Eagles team list was released, I remember pointing out that Daniel Akpeyi has not been too impressive and wondered why Rohr opted for him ahead of Ikechukwu Ezenwa of FC IfeanyiUba. Akpeyi lacks confidence in big occasions. Again, he also does not have the type of Vincent Enyeama’s organisational ability. If he had organised his defenders well perhaps, the scoreline would have been different. Why start Akpeyi who ply his trade with Chippa United in South African against some of the players who know his weaknesses and strength having played together in the same league? Eagles need to celebrate the slim 2-0 scoreline. The embarrassment could have been more if some of the balls that hit woodwork had found the back of the net.
However, rather than see this setback as the end of the rebuilding process of a formidable Eagles, I see it as a wake-up call for handlers of the three-time African champions. If Nigeria had defeated South Africa, a false impression would have been created ahead of our World Cup 2018 clash with Cameroon in August. Now, Rohr has been told that he needs to do more to earn the confidence of Nigerians back. It is obvious that the presence of Mikel, Victor Moses and Carl Ikeme cannot be waived for now. The team that played last Saturday in Uyo lacked leadership. I don’t want to believe that the preference of Onazi instead of vice-captain, Ahmed Musa, had anything to do with how the boys played. Mikel is a leader. He commands respect almost like the late Stephen Keshi as captain.
The challenge posed by the Cameroonians is far greater than what Bafana brought to Uyo. The Indomitable Lions are the current African champions and would want to prove that to Eagles. What is at stake is far greater than the AFCON ticket. The Cameroonians want to go to Russia World Cup 2018 as African champions. The rivalry between both countries is legendary. With Nigeria at the top of the Group B pairing, the Lions know they need at least four out of the six points at stake for them to have any chance of grabbing the ticket. They certainly must be having a healthy laugh in Yaounde now. Their feelings would be: “If South Africa can do it, the Indomitable Lion can also.” This is the real challenge ahead of Rohr as he gets back to the drawing board ahead of the August battles in Uyo and Yaounde.
A third Nations Cup miss would certainly create a problem for the game here while failing to grab the ticket to the World Cup cannot be explained with Nigeria leading the pack right from the first game. Let’s not just think about that happening as the consequent may be too hot to handle.
With Daniel Akpeyi’s uninspiring display against Bafana Bafana last Saturday in Uyo, agitations have started again for the return of Vincent Enyeama from retirement. It is very doubtful if Enyeama will listen to any plea for him to return. Given the manner he was treated before calling it quit. Nigerians should enjoy the memories of the former Enyimba safe hands between the posts for Eagles.