Its decision time for coach Stephen Keshi as he prepares to release his final 23-man list for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, writes’TANA AIYEJINA
Nigeria’s Super Eagles will play Greece on Wednesday in continuation of their preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But before the game, coach Stephen Keshi is expected to name his final 23-man squad for the Mundial.
The national team last week held Scotland’s Tartan Army to a 2-2 draw in Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home ground, in an encounter Keshi gave starting opportunities to the team’s fringe players.
It showed as the World Cup-bound Eagles came from behind twice— thanks to strikes from Michael Uchebo and Uche Nwofor—to hold the Scots, who were looking for a fifth win in six games under manager Gordon Strachan.
The Eagles were not at their best as Keshi rested several key players while some watched the majority of the match from the bench.
It was a chance for the reserves to stake a claim for a place in Brazil but several observers say the ‘new boys’ struggled to create an impression.
The second-string side that started included Shola Ameobi in attack while Efe Ambrose, Osaze Odemwingie and Victor Moses were on the bench.
Keshi started new boy Kunle Odunlami, Joel Obi, who is making a return to the team since 2012, Enugu Rangers winger Ejike Uzoenyi, Reuben Gabriel, Michael Babatunde, Michael Uchebo and Joseph Yobo, as he tried to finalise his preparations for the World Cup.
Odunlami, a natural centre-back playing at right-back, was unlucky to have been given the task of marking out Ikechi Anya, who has a Nigerian father but opted for Scotland, the place of his birth.
The Watford winger tormented Odunlami all through the match before he was substituted while skipper Yobo’s long absence from the squad was evident.
Though bullish on the night and brimming with confidence, Azubike Egwuekwe was unfortunate to have conceded an own goal, when he bundled a cross into his own net.
In goal, a badly positioned Austin Ejide, who has barely seen international action in over a decade, could only watch helplessly as Charlie Mulgrew flicked James Morrison’s shot over him, when the initial effort was going wide off the post.
With 2-1 down, the introduction of Moses, Osaze, Nnamdi Oduamadi, Ambrose, Nosa Igiebor and striker Uche Nwofor brought sanity to Nigeria’s play.
And it was Nwofor, who turned hero of the night with a last-gasp equaliser that broke Scottish hearts.
Nigerians took to the social media during and after the game, criticising the performance of several players, with some insisting that the likes of Spain-based Ike Uche and Schalke 04 forward, Chinedu Obasi, should have been invited to the squad to add more depth and competition for places in the final squad for the World Cup.
But South Africa-based Nigerian sportswriter and broadcaster, Emeka Enyadike, said the experimental squad should not be crucified after just one pre-World Cup friendly.
“I am surprised by some of the comments about last night’s (Wednesday) game. The team arrived in London on Sunday, had two days training before that game. A lot of fringe Players started and for me the result was good,” he wrote on Facebook.
“We are back to the same attitude before (2013) AFCON, when people wrote off the team’s chances after the Cape Verde game. I strongly believe the Super Eagles will do very well at the World Cup.
“They have two weeks and two more friendlies to get it right and they will improve with each game. There’s a lot of hunger and belief in this team, and it’s not impossible for the team to go all the way. Let’s all support the Super Eagles and also believe in them.
“There is only one coach, Keshi, and he has picked his team.”
He added that some of the new players tested against Scotland, could add more quality to the team.
“The players who didn’t start will definitely make the team stronger; Uchebo and Nwofor showed some class with their goals. Nwofor can be our impact player off the bench but Moses must cut out excess dribbling and focus on causing damage.”
Who will therefore make Keshi’s final squad for the World Cup?
Former Nigeria defender, Taribo West, hailed the performance of the players against Scotland but said Keshi must work more in the defensive area, which he identified as the most problematic, ahead of the game against the Greeks.
The Atlanta Olympics gold medalist said home-based players Odunlami (Sunshine Stars) and Egwuekwe (Warri Wolves) didn’t measure up to expectations.
“Keshi now knows what to do in the defensive department ahead of the game against Greece. Egwuekwe was always about 100m away from Yobo, which shouldn’t have been. Odunlami was another problem but I believe when Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona come in, there will be more stability in the defence,” the former AC Milan centre-back said.
“I was impressed with the new boys; (Gabriel) Reuben was fantastic. The coach needs to assess the team further in their next game.”
Fringe Eagles striker, Mfon Bassey, said the game versus Scotland has eased Keshi’s selection headache.
“You can always differentiate experience from experience. Uzoenyi played well and even though Uchebo scored, I don’t think he is ripe yet for the World Cup. You could see the difference when Osaze, Ambrose and Moses came in. I am not saying some are not good, but some are better than the others.”
With just hours to the release of Keshi’s final World Cup, the players will surely be on their knees now, praying and hoping to make the trip to Brazil.
Who makes the final cut? Only Keshi has the final answer on Monday.