Nigeria defeated Libya in a five-goal thriller on Tuesday night to climb to the top of Group E of 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying series. The Super Eagles had surrendered a two-goal lead but eventually sealed the win through striker Odion Ighalo’s brilliant individual effort.
Tuesday’s win was the second over the Mediterranean Knights in four days after the Eagles romped to a 4-0 win over Omar Al-Miryami’s side in Uyo on Saturday, a victory also inspired by Ighalo who netted his first ever treble for the national team.
Just like Saturday’s win, Tuesday’s victory was far from being a flawless one. The fact that Gernot Rohr’s men let a two-goal lead slip like ball through Uzoho’s fingers was enough to spark a scrutiny of the performance and there came five posers that came up while reflecting on the game.
1. Will Uzoho get better on the bench?
Odinaka Francis Uzoho has hardly had a 100% game for the Super Eagles since he made his debut last year. Perhaps the performance against Iceland in Volgograd was the closest he has gone to being perfect after his debut against Argentina in Krasnodar but his displays have been littered with many heart-stopping moments and Tuesday night was not an exception.
Uzoho struggled with his kicks on Saturday in Uyo; a situation that almost embarrassed him in the opening minutes. However, his general lack of composure and proper ball handling in Sfax posed a more serious threat to Nigeria’s win. I am a fan of the lad and I believe he is the best for the position at the moment but for how long will Nigerians cope with his lack of composure – a vital component in goalkeeping?
47' Libya 1-2 Nigeria
Not looking like Uzoho's night is it? The goalkeeper has just been booked for perceived time-wasting.
— ACLSports (@acl_sports) October 16, 2018
He is young, he will improve but it is becoming obvious that Uzoho needs a lot of match situations to develop this composure but he has only kept once for his new club Elche where he is second choice to a 39-year old goalkeeper. Nigerian coach Rohr has tried to give him much minutes as (bar the meaningless friendly against Liberia) Uzoho has been in goal for all of Nigeria’s games since making his debut last November but are these minutes enough while he rots on the bench abroad?
2. Is it possible to attain perfection in set-piece defending?
Defending in dead ball situations is an issue that has been with the Nigerian national teams from time immemorial. The Eagles have conceded set-piece goals in each of their World Cup participation from 1994 in Boston to 2018 in Kaliningrad. It happened again in Sfax on Tuesday night when the Libyans halved the deficit at 0-2 down.
The concession of Noureddine Zaebiaa’s goal left many asking the question: “The set-piece again??” Knowing how niggling a situation this has been for the team, the poser keeps coming back: Is it possible to stop conceding from set-plays? If yes, then why have we not resolved the issues?
35' GOAL! Libya 1-2 Nigeria
The two centre forwards combine in a set-piece situation. Anis Seltou out jumps Balogun to flick to the far post from where Noureddine Zaebiaa powered home his header.
— ACLSports (@acl_sports) October 16, 2018
Tuesday’s scenario came when Libya’s big centre forward Anis Saltou beat Leon Balogun – perhaps the player with the most commanding presence in the air in the Nigerian team – to a lofted free kick. Could it be the lack of time to work on meticulous matters like this at the international level? Or could it be that we just have to live with it and hope that “His grace is sufficient for us”? Answers!
3. Is Collins really the best we can get?
There is a new wave of excitement among fans of the Super Eagles over the emergence of new left back Jamilu Collins – a younger, and natural left footer option. It is quite understandable for Nigerians to celebrate the sight of any new thing, even without thorough examination of the extant qualities. Collins played full match in both games against Libya, was denied by the cross bar on his debut in Uyo and was involved in the buildup to the second goal in Sfax. But, is that all?
Away from the hosanna of victory, how efficient or excellent was the left back’s contributions? It is expected that there will be some bug in the tummy while making your first appearances for the national team, especially when you play for a lower league side in Europe but the larger question is: Is this the best we can get anywhere in the world? If yes, then there is a problem.
Collins was evidently hesitant to cross the halfway line in most of his 180 minutes and was defensively suspect in key moments in the first half in Uyo and on Tuesday night, providing an overlay of tasks on the defender playing next to him – Balogun. Other options have been mooted in recent times – Switzerland based Stanley Amuzie and Enyimba prodigy Ikouwem Utin inclusive – and it will be in the interest of Mr Rohr to keep his options, and mind open for competition for places, the way it is at right back.
4. What happens to the midfield in Ndidi’s absence?
Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi received a suspicious booking in stoppage time on Tuesday night, one which rules him out of the important clash away to South Africa in November. With Ogenyi Onazi reportedly injured, that leaves Mr Rohr’s midfield options in a thinner-than-ever shape.
Stoke City’s Oghenekaro Etebo has won the hearts of many and has not looked back since his impressive World Cup performance. The question will now be who to partner the former Warri Wolves midfielder in Ndidi’s absence? Onazi? John Ogu Ugochukwu? Or will the captain John Mikel Obi who has been battling fitness issues since the summer be called upon for another SOS mission?
The case with Onazi and Ogu is very contrasting. While fans do not want to see the former, they have been yearning to see the latter in action. The Israel-based midfielder played for the last fifteen minutes in Sfax but did he do enough to earn the trust of the coach to start him in South Africa? I think, maybe not. I will not be surprised if Mikel makes a return for the South Africa game because other options aside this trio such as Semi Ajayi, Azubuike Okechukwu, Usman Mohammed and any other names that can arise are either ‘not ready’ or not available for such game.
5. Has Ighalo finally turned the corner?
Before Saturday’s game against Libya, Odion Jude Ighalo had scored just five goals in his three years with the national team but it took the Changchun Yatai forward just ninety-six hours to double that tally after some relishing outing against Libya.
Ighalo bore the brunt of Nigeria’s failure to go past the group stage of the FIFA World Cup Russia last summer but in fairness, his goalscoring ratio for the Super Eagles has always been questioned by fans and analysts, even when he was banging the goals in England with Watford. He shared the unwanted honours of the most criticised Eagles stars at the World Cup with the now retired Victor Moses but he has hung on with the team and has now scored six goals in his last three matches.
The moment Ighalo received that ball, he knew what he wanted to do. Fortunately for him, only him was aware of that. What a goal! #LBYNGA
— Fisayo Dairo (@FisayoDairo) October 16, 2018
In the midst of the six goals, Ighalo sometimes looked puzzled with turnovers, blunt movements and lack of presence at other times, but the real essence of having a number 9 is to get the goals which he did. These factors can however not be overlooked on the long term, especially as Nations Cup qualification now beckons on the Super Eagles.
Has the former Julius Berger striker finally got the monkeys off his back? Seeing that the last time Ighalo really excelled in the Eagles shirt was this time last year in a double-header against Cameroon, it will be interesting to see if this is not just a déjà vu but a performance of a man that has truly turned a new leaf.
Photos by Andrew Randa. Twitter @RandaAndrew