Wednesday 27 March 2019

/ by Colin Udoh

No question at all about who stole the show, and the headlines, in Nigeria’s 1-0 defeat of Egypt in Tuesday’s international friendly match at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba. 

There is still some uncertainty about the exact timing, but FC Midjtylland forward Paul Onuachu struck the perfect volley within the opening 10-15 seconds and with the first three touches of the game to record what should undoubtedly stand as the fastest goal ever scored by the Super Eagles. Heck, it might even rank as one of the fastest in world football!

But it was more than just the goal that made his performance such an eye-catcher, and that is where we start our hot takes from the game

It was a thing of pure beauty. Straight from kickoff, Onuachu saw a perfect ball played in for him by John Ogu and raced after it, let the ball go across him, took one touch to set himself up, and the second to lash home a volley of equal parts poetry and craftsmanship.
Considering that turned out to be the winning goal, it would have been enough to accord him serious consideration for the Nation’s Cup final 23.
But the young man did not know when to stop. He then proceeded to maul and molest Egypt’s centreback pairing. 
Onuachu’s first touch, which has improved considerably, elevated his link up play to ridiculous levels, his spatial awareness meant he barely made a bad decision, his aerial abiliy was not in doubt, but it was his use of his frame not just to win headers, but to take long punts on his chest that constantly kept the Egyptian defence on the back foot.
If there was to be any criticism of his game, it is that he did not exploit that advantage in Nigeria’s setpieces, but that is reaching. 
As he went off to rapturous applause from the home fans, it was clear that Onuachu had at least given himself a chance to make that final 23. 
Rohr must be purring. He has spent the last two years searching for a backup to Odion Ighalo - one that could be an eventual replacement for the 29-year-old, and not quite succeeded. That search seems to have come to an end in the space of two days. Victor Osimhen with a hattrick and now Onuachu with a man of the match display against the seven-time African champions.
“Now no more new players,” Rohr said post game. “I have Ighalo, Osimhen and Paul. And don’t forget we have also Kelechi (Iheanacho).”

Make no mistake, Egypt looked better during large swathes of the game. Their positional awareness was near impeccable, their passing was precise, and more importantly, their ability to win tackles and second balls means teams will always have trouble playing against them. And the Super Eagles did have some trouble in those recovery phases of the game.
But it is a credit to the Nigerian players that they found solutions to those problems within the game. 
Against Seychelles, they looked somewhat patchy despite their dominance and certain things just did not come off.
Playing against a quality opposition however, and one which came out to play, the Eagles quality shone through. They moved the ball well, they were patient, they created opportunities, and in defence, they were near impregnable, giving very little away to the champions. Daniel Akpeyi did not have a single save to make in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch, and Ezenwa only had to come up with one big one during his own 45. That is a credit to the defensive organisation that the German has drilled into the side.
The last time they played this well was against Libya in Sfax, Tunisia. Two similarities between this game and that. The weather was not as hot and the pitch was not as bad. That bodes well for the Afcon.

Leon Balogun has barely kicked a ball in anger in weeks. So when he was drafted in to start against Egypt, one could have been forgiven for thinking he would be a big match rusty.
Not Mr Balogun. He slotted in seamlessly alongside his fellow Oyinbo Wall partner in crime William Troost-Ekong.
One major challenge fans have had with Balogun is his supposed lack of pace. But the defender said pre-game that he was being unfavorably judged because of having players like with searing pace like Ahmed Musa, Moses Simon, and Henry Onyekuru in the same team.
“You people don’t realize it but those guys are fast, and their pace over the first few meters is incredible,” Balogun said. “Maybe over a linger distance I could try but not shorter distances.”
That claim was put to the test on one occasion when Balogun’s usual impeccable reading of the game failed him and Egypt striker got goalside of him and set up a foot race. Balogun hunted him down, matched him for speed and made a decisive intervention. 
“I am always motivated, always ready to step in when I am called on.” 
Tuesday provided ample evidence.

Prior to the game, Rohr gave the local players in the squad hope when he promised to give new players an opportunity, and said he would use all six allowed substitutions. And so he did.
By the end of the friendly, there were three NPFL players on the field for Nigeria. 
That number does not tell the full story though. Goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, as usual, was the only one to notch up significant minutes. He came on in the second half and played all 45 minutes.
Ndifreke Effiong came on in the last five minutes, and Ikouwem Udoh came on with just about enough time to get in a touch. 
As if that was not puzzling enough, Rohr reversed their roles. Effiong, who is an offensive player, came on for Abdullahi Shehu and was shunted to right back. Udoh, a left back, came in for Moses Simon, a winger and was also deployed accordingly.
Neither did badly, but if we are to see the best of them, they don’t just need to be given enough minutes but to do so playing in their rightful positions.

Groundsmen the world over are petrified when their pitches are subjected to two matches in the space of one week, let alone three.
If that was not enough of a nightmare scenario, throw in all four teams training on the same pitch into the scenario and see the makings of apoplexy. That was not the case with the head groundsman at the Stephen Keshi Stadium. The only thing he asked for was to have at least one day of rainfall before the games. The heavens duly obliged on Thursday night, the eve of the first game. He was grinning ear to ear on Friday morning. 
And true to his words, the pitch held up. Infact, Nigeria and Egypt played out a quite entertaining final game of the week of football festivities.
To be clear, the Asaba pitch is not the best. And there is plenty of work yet that needs to be done to bring it up to proper standard, But it is natural grass and it is green and it is even. And more to the point, it survived three hard games in the space of five days. That is deserving of praise.

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