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These Super Eagles are now hungry

Three-time African champions, the Super Eagles kick-started their final preparations for the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with a keenly contested friendly match against…

Three-time African champions, the Super Eagles kick-started their final preparations for the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with a keenly contested friendly match against the Green Falcons of Saudi Arabia last Friday at Estadio Municipal de Portimao in Portugal and it ended in a 2-2 draw. The first time both teams met was 13 years ago in Austria where they settled for a goalless draw.

Although profligacy and sloppy defending denied the Super Eagles victory, their hunger for victory was obvious. Unlike in the past when they put up lackadaisical performances, especially in friendly matches, there was urgency in the way the Super Eagles played. Their attitude was encouraging.

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) also must be commended for keeping to its pledge to keep the players busy with international friendly matches. Previously, the NFF created room for them to idle away during such recess because there was nothing to engage them. However, since the coming of Alhaji Ibrahim Gusuau, there is a remarkable improvement as the Super Eagles are now guaranteed at least a friendly match during any international break.

Yes, I know it is not easy to satisfy Nigerian football fans so some may wonder why the choice of Saudi Arabia when there are countries like England, Germany, Spain, Argentina, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and a host of others to test the Super Eagles. But the truth is that there are no more minnows in international football. The days when bigger nations easily crushed smaller opponents are fast disappearing. The so-called minnows are now tricky opponents because they are always aspiring to beat their more endowed opponents. Therefore, in preparing for any major tournament like the AFCON, the Super Eagles mustn’t play against Spain or Argentina to be taken seriously.

Moreover, the choice of Saudi Arabia as a test match for the Super Eagles can’t be faulted because it is too soon for us to forget what the Saudis did to Argentina, the number one ranked team in the world at the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar. That historic 2-1 victory over the star-studded Argentine national team automatically elevated the status of Saudi Arabia in world football. Anyone who takes them for granted will do so at his own peril.

Interestingly, last Friday, at least three players, Al Owais (goalkeeper), Altambakti and Al-Boleahi who started in that historic victory over Argentina started against the Super Eagles before they were joined in the second half by Al-Shahrani, S. Al-Shehri (who equalised Lionel Messi’s opening goal), S. Al-Dawsari (scorer of the winning goal), Kanno and Abdulhamid. In all, at least 13 of the players who were involved in the match against Argentina were present in the clash with the Super Eagles. Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever to question the suitability or credibility of the friendly match with Saudi Arabia.

Without any doubt, the Super Eagles tested their readiness for the 2024 AFCON against a formidable opposition. Even as they were unable to completely overwhelm their opponents, the Super Eagles showed flashes of a team that is yearning to play attacking football. This is one important thing that Coach Jose Peseiro has shown that he wants to bring into the team. It was for this reason that he played Victor Osimhen and Victor Boniface together in attack. The deadly duo was flanked by Ademola Lukman and Samuel Chukwueze who are equally fast on the ball. Although the attack was wasteful, we all saw the pace and hunger for goals. It is hoped that as they play matches more together, they will build the much-needed understanding.

Another positive from the friendly encounter is the performance of the in-form Bayer Leverkusen striker, Boniface who has shown clearly that he is good enough to be on the plane to Cote d’ Ivoire for next year’s AFCON. He combined well with his co-strikers and his aggressiveness in front of goal was evident against Saudi Arabia. If not that his goal was later recorded as an own goal, he would have crowned his satisfactory performance with a goal on his full debut for Nigeria. Without a doubt, playing against Boniface, Osimhen and Awoniyi who missed the match due to injury can be defenders’ nightmare.

Least I forget, I want to add that having Boniface at this time is one of the best things that God in his infinite mercies has done for the Super Eagles. With his presence, bullish striker, Osimhen, who is a dedicated servant of the national team but erratic at times, won’t hold the country to ransom in future. Personally, I wasn’t happy with the way he substituted himself in the match against Saudi Arabia. Even if he was injured, he should have allowed the bench to take that decision. What he did is mostly associated with players who feel they are more important than others.

And the immediate impact that was made by the substitutes, especially Moses Simon, Terem Moffi and Kelechi Iheanacho was another positive from the match. The Super Eagles were trailing the Saudis but the moment they came on, the tide changed. Simon who assisted the first goal was the tormentor-in-chief on the left side of the attack. With what happened, it is evident that we have a bench that can deliver when called upon. One of the things that has made Manchester City a dreaded side is their capacity to produce two grade A squads at any given time. Any team without a rich bench is definitely imperiled.

Well, despite the few positives as enumerated above, the Super Eagles showed they still lack the needed potency in front of goal. No wonder since 2019, they have not won a friendly match. The strikers squandered glaring opportunities that would have put the team at least two goals up before the break. The defence was still shaky but the good news is the discovery of Bruno Onyemaechi who was impressive in the left-full back position. The midfield too wasn’t solid even as Wilfred Ndidi and Alex Iwobi overworked themselves in their attempt to make it compact.

The worst of it all was Francis Uzoho who put up another shambolic performance in goal. In spite of his height, he has never been comfortable with aerial balls. So, in his characteristic manner, he stylishly palmed Salman Al-Faraj’s free-kick into his own net. It is clear from his last performance that Uzoho is not the goalkeeper for the 2024 AFCON. Unfortunately, Maduka Okoye, the Udinese goalie hasn’t tasted club or national team action for over a year now. He is completely rusty so it will take a miracle for him to regain full fitness before January 2024.

So, while I commend the Super Eagles for showing signs of a team that is ready to make amends for past failures, it is necessary to advise them to go back to the drawing board immediately. Of course, they played well, but it is also worrisome that they failed to finish strongly. Some of the elementary mistakes they made against the Green Falcons won’t go unpunished by a more formidable opponent.

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