Nigeria versus Scotland: What did we learn?

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Nigeria and Scotland met in
Fulham to contest a pre-
World Cup friendly. This
match needed to set the tone for the summer to
come for the Super Eagles, but while Uche Nwofor’s
late equaliser sent Nigeria fans home in jubilant
mood, Stephen Keshi’s troops generated more
questions than answers.
So, what did we learn? Well, the honest answer is:
not that much. The Super Eagles line-up featured
only one player, Elderon Echiejile, who will likely
start Nigeria’s opening World Cup match against Iran
this summer.
Naturally, the Big Boss needs to assess the players
who will flesh out his squad in Brazil, and it is
important that he decides which of the provisional 30
will make the plane. Whereas in matches against
Italy and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, Keshi trialled
some fringe players alongside the side’s key men,
against Scotland he decided to haul 10 sporadic
internationals into the fray together. This meant that
right from the off, the Super Eagles lacked cohesion.
It’s hard to know what Reuben Gabriel brings to the
midfield when paired alongside the returning Joel
Obi, making his first appearance in 18 months. It’s
difficult to truly judge Kunle Odunlami when one of
the Championship of African Nations’ most
impressive centre-backs was played at right-back,
flanking an unfamiliar defensive pairing of Joseph
Yobo and Azubuike Egwuekwe. Can we really assess
Shola Ameobi-likely to be a substitute in Brazil-
when he is flanked by Michel Babatunde and Ejike
Uzoenyi rather than Ahmed Musa and Peter
Odemwingie?
It’s no wonder that for large portions of the match it
was Scotland, and not Nigeria, who looked like they
were World Cup-bound. Scotland are an organised
and intense unit under Gordon Strachan; the Super
Eagles that turned out on Wednesday looked, too
often, like strangers lumbered together.
This is not a criticism of the players; Joel Obi
doesn’t know exactly the runs that Michael Uchebo’s
going to make and can’t play his passes
accordingly. Babatunde isn’t aware, exactly, of how
Ameobi attacks balls in the box and thus how to
deliver his crosses. We couldn’t have expected
much more.
Did Keshi, in lumping 10 fringe players together,
waste the opportunity to examine four of them, for
example, alongside the men who will lead the side
out in South America? It certainly felt that way at
times. The original starting selection makes it
difficult to assess the Super Eagles’ World Cup
chances much better than we could have done 24
hours ago.
Are the defensive unit up to the tests to come? Well,
Enyeama-Elderson-Oboabona-Omeruo-Ambrose are;
Ejide-Elderson-Egwuekwe-Yobo-Odunlami … not so
much. Can Nigeria’s offence cause problems for
Bosnia’s shabby backline? Well, Moses-Emenike-
Musa-Odemwingie might be able to; Uzoenyi-
Ameobi-Uchebo-Babatunde probably won’t give the
Eastern Europeans too many sleepless nights. Looking at Keshi’s provisional squad of 30, Kunle
Odunlami and Michel Babatunde are probably two
names that many would pick to be culled. Following
their showings against Scotland, both men moved
further away from the ultimate invitation. The former
struggled to cope with Scotland’s Nigerian winger
Ikechi Anya, who gave him problems all day with his
intelligent movement, electric pace and testing
deliveries. Odunlami, admittedly playing out of
position, spent a while out on the turf after a
collision and was replaced by Efe Ambrose soon
after.
Babatunde, again, struggled to impose himself and
did little to protect his full-back. The Volyn man
hasn’t done much in his showings to date to
suggest that he can compete against the world’s
finest, and it’s a little bewildering that he continues
to feature alongside the nation’s finest. He dived into
a 50/50 tackle late on — not necessarily advisable
with a World Cup on the horizon — looking like a
man either desperate to make it to Brazil or
desperate not to make it. I suspect Keshi will already
have a conclusion drawn out for Babatunde.
Joseph Yobo, speaking the post-match press
conference, spoke of the “exciting new faces” he has
found in the squad since his return. Excluding goal-
scorer Michael Uchebo — who received some
completely undue criticism from fans in the stadium
and online before his goal — appears to be the only
player the Fenerbahce defender could realistically be
referring to.
The key positives probably come in optimism and
explanation rather than tangible contributions.
Uchebo and Uche Nwofor, who entered the contest to
great, goal-scoring effect late on, have given Keshi
something to think about in attack. Both men offer
something and, importantly, are the kind of mobile,
energetic players that the Big Boss has looked to
incorporate in his side.
Peter Odemwingie returned to a hero’s welcome and
responded to the acclaim with some fine touches,
encouraging link-up play and by being a menacing
presence in dangerous areas. He looks likely to
travel and provides options in the final third.
Finally, Joel Obi. His cameo was brief, but ‘The Man
of Glass’ managed to show some of the qualities that
he brings to the team and, specifically, to the heart of
the midfield. To varying degrees of success, Obi
dropped deep to pick the ball up from the defence,
dictated the temp and sought to drive forward with
possession to make things happen amidst the
Scottish lines.
What was the most impressive aspect of his
performance? It was probably the way he took
responsibility and exuded authority in the middle of
the park. Few of us expected this, but Obi was a
vocal and authoritative presence, despite his slender
years, and wasn’t afraid to take players on and look
to make things happen. This is what has been
missing and this is what is needed in the centre of
the park. The prospect of Obi playing alongside John
Obi Mikel, with Ogenyi Onazi’s bustle, is mouth-
watering.
Yobo, speaking after the match, expressed an
anticipation that things will “fall into place” in the
next two friendlies. There were a few reasons for
optimism tonight, but the late goal certainly put a
gloss on a disappointing showing. Ultimately, Yobo
needs to be right. There needs to be more cohesion,
more direction and clearer signs that Keshi knows
the best approach for Brazil.

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