Getting The Team Right For Russia 2018  – Part 1

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By Bolaji Douglas

As the Super Eagles begin a series of friendlies to help prepare the team for the World Cup coming up in Russia later on in the year, perhaps now is the time to take a look at the areas where the team is in dire need of beefing up.

Although the team performed very well during the qualifiers, by winning comfortably the group that was labelled the group of death at the time, since it featured four African soccer power houses comprising of the current African Cup of Nations champion, the Cameroon in addition to past winners Zambia, Algeria and Nigeria. Nevertheless, for the team to be able to compete at the Mundial in Russia, there is still a lot of room for improvements. It is one thing to breeze through the African qualifiers, it is a different ball game entirely when it comes to facing the best teams in the world in Russia. We have managed to find ourselves in another group of death , this time made up of of Argentina, Croatia and Iceland, we have our work well cut out come June in Russia.

A number of areas have been identified where the team needs improvement in personnel and perhaps the most glaring one, is in the goalkeeping department. With the retirement of Vincent Enyeama, and followed by the unavailability of Carl Ikeme, who is currently recovering from a major illness that has sidelined him from action, a big void was created in that department as a result.  At the time when Vincent retired from the national team, we had the luxury of Carl who slotted in effortlessly, but his illness has dealt a blow to the team and created a headache for the handlers of the team as a result. Losing two quality keepers in such quick succession would hurt the aspirations of any team.

Pressed to the wall, the team tried to make do with Daniel Akpeyi one of the budding keepers who plies his trade with the Chippa United football club in South Africa, but his performance against South Africa in the qualifiers of the African nations cup left him badly exposed and would cost both himself and the nation dearly. The handlers turned to another keeper in the person of Ezenwa who plays on the local scene for Ifeanyi Uba FC.  And in what looked like a gamble at that time paid off, he proved his mettle against the dreaded Cameroonians over the two delicate World Cup qualifiers matches played in Uyo and Yaounde. He then went on to man the post for the rest of the world cup qualifiers, featuring in the matches against Zambia and Algeria while acquitting himself very well. He also manned the post during the CHAN competition.  With these he managed to bring himself into national reckoning.

In these matches he demonstrated his ability as a good shot stopper, his athleticism served him very well in the matches as he handled everything thrown at him very well. Perhaps what stood out against him as a weakness was his lack of good timing when it comes to coming out for clearances. On one of such moments he conceded a needless penalty in Yaounde against Cameroon, when he made a rash judgment which ended with him upending a Cameroon player in the box. While the potentials are there, however there were noticeable rough edges around his game. While this can be dealt with over time with exposure to more international matches and good training programme, the problem the team and indeed the nation is faced with right now is lack of time.

It is in the light of this that there were still concerns about his quality and this has led to calls for Enyeama to change his mind by calling off his retirement, a position which the handlers of the team seem to be open to. The team Manager Rohr it was reported made overtures to Enyeama on this issue, but so far Enyeama has stuck to his retirement plans. In fairness to him, a couple of issues surrounding his match fitness has not made it easy for him to make up his mind. It is being reported however that the door remains open should he decide to change his mind.

While the Enyeama route appears to be shut, howbeit for now, the Super Eagles handlers however have since gone after a young 19 year old keeper by name Francis Uzoho who plies his trade for the Deportivo La Coruna B team. He made his debut for the Super Eagles in the friendly against Argentina by coming in for Daniel Akpeyi who once again managed to make a harsh job of the opportunity given to him to redeem himself. Uzoho did just enough to catch the attention of the team handlers and the fans with the calmness he brought to the defence as the team went on to beat Argentina. What Uzoho had going in his favour is his height and calmness in goal. At 6’ 5’’ he is able to command his aerial territory easily, also he comes with decent ball handling and good distribution of the ball.

 But he is lacking in experience, especially at this level of the game and this became more glaring after the two friendlies against Poland and Serbia. Although his performance was decent over the two matches, nevertheless there were moments when his lack of experience reared its head. In both games, it took him some time to settle down and there were shaky moments which could prove costly in a more competitive condition. When you go to the World Cup, this is a party for the best in the game from around the world, it is hardly a place for rookies, it is a place where mistakes are punished. It stands to be seen therefore how the handlers of the team would help the lad to overcome this within the timeframe before the big event in Russia. This too has not gone unnoticed to the fans and once again has led to the clamour for Enyeama.

The team is now faced with a major dilemma, to stick with Ezenwa or Uzoho who appear to be in the pole position for the number one shirt, or perhaps continue to hold out in the hope that Enyeama would not only get fit in time for the World Cup, but would also come out of retirement to serve his Motherland in her hour of need. Whichever way the dice is thrown, the team is faced with a major problem in this department of the team. To go with either of Ezenwa or Uzoho leaves the team at the mercy of the shortcomings highlighted earlier on, these cannot be simply wished away nor dealt with overnight. Now while it is possible to manage these shortcomings through the training programmes the handlers might put in place, however in this game and at this level, teams look out for these weaknesses in the opposing teams that they might exploit them, are we willing to take this gamble?

On the other hand, to go with Enyeama, if at all he decides to come out of retirement gives to the team, the benefit of his vast experience having attended and acquitted himself well at the 2002, 2010 and the 2014 editions of the tournament. But there is also a huge risk involved with his option, his fitness! He has been out of action for close to a season or more having lost his position in his team and injury. He has been working very hard to get back to full fitness and has played a couple of matches for his team, nevertheless the road to full fitness for such an event as the World Cup is longer …does he have the time?

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