The United States of America beat Nigeria 2-1 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida. A pair of goals from Jozy Altidore exposed the Super Eagles’ defensive frailties, while a late Victor Moses penalty was little consolation.
The mood has changed among Nigeria fans.
Before the match, even after unconvincing showings against Scotland and Greece, supporters fell into three categories. There were the dreamers, the realists and the pessimists.
Category 1, the dreamers, have largely fallen by the wayside. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they’re still backing Nigeria for a place in the final four after witnessing such an underwhelming defensive showing.
The realists are also beginning to recalibrate their World Cup predictions.
Those who were forecasting a spot in the quarter-finals are now claiming that a place in the Last 16 would be an achievement. Those who felt that Nigeria were guaranteed to make the knock-out stages and could take it from there are now starting to acknowledge that the Super Eagles may struggle to make it out of the group.
It’s impossible to know, before a ball has even been kicked, how things will pan out for Stephen Keshi’s men in Brazil.
Perhaps things will click for the match against Iran and they will be singing in Sokoto again this time next week, buoyed, once again, with optimism, and reinforced with the conviction that Africa’s champions are primed to make a continental breakthrough.
Perhaps, however, things will continue to unravel for Keshi and co. and the Super Eagles could be in for an unhappy denouement over the coming weeks.
The sense that Keshi is travelling to Brazil with an underprepared and unbalanced squad becomes harder and harder to ignore by the passing day.
Before the starting whistle against the United States, the news broke that Elderson Echiejile has been ruled out of the World Cup.
This information, rather than the performance against Jurgen Klinsmann’s men, threatens to undermine Nigeria’s tournament.
Elderson is a key man for the national side. He has his weaknesses, certainly, and he may have been rusty after six months of predominant inactivity at AS Monaco, but, having started 21 of Nigeria’s last 22 games before the USA match, he has installed himself as a key man in the first team.
For any World Cup-bound side to lose a first team regular at this late stage would come as a blow, but Keshi seems wholly unprepared for Elderson’s absence, or the absence of either full-back for that matter.
Consider the other African sides for a moment.
Over the last year, Cameroon have given considerable game time to no less than three left-backs. Henri Bedimo will likely start in Brazil, he has featured in 10 of the last 17. If he is injured, there is no need to be concerned as Benoit Assou-Ekotto will step up, Volker Finke knows what he is capable of, BAE has featured in five of the last 12, starting on three occasions.
Should neither man be fit, then the Indomitable Lions can turn to Gaetan Bong, who has started two of the last eight matches.
Look at the Cote d’Ivoire, Arthur Boka should start in Brazil. He has played in 12 of the last 18 for the Elephants. Second choice, Constant Djakpa, has played in the last three games, while Siake Tiene, who hasn’t been picked, has started eight of the last 19.
It is a similar story for Ghana and for Algeria where, in Kwadwo Asamoah and Harrison Afful, and Faouzi Ghoulam and Djamel Mesbah respectively, their respective coaches have cultivated their options.
In Nigeria’s matches, stretching back to the beginning of the 2013 Cup of Nations, only one other left-back has started a match. Francis Benjamin, Elderson’s understudy for much of last year, featured against Italy in November, didn’t impress, and was jettisoned by the manager.
Having not assessed any other options, the Big Boss found himself resorting to Juwon Oshaniwa, a man who wasn’t seen for a year after a disconcerting cameo in the Cup of Nations final.
Now, when Nigeria need stability the most, Keshi is trying desperately to reintegrate Oshaniwa into the defence. The #MysteryLeftBack is comfortable with the ball at his feet, but he was at fault for the USA’s first goal last night and will need to improve drastically to avoid being a weak link this summer.
The manager’s decision to replace the departing Elderson with 5 ft 6 left-winger Ejike Uzoenyi is as bewildering as his inability to assess any other left-back options throughout the year.
Has 53-cap Taye Taiwo deteriorated so much that he’s not even been worth a brief assessment over the last 18 months? Is Uzoenyi really Nigeria’s third-best left-back?
There are problems elsewhere that Keshi needs to resolve before Nigeria’s opening World Cup fixture.
Joseph Yobo was arguably culpable for both of America’s goals and Kenneth Omeruo, who missed the match through injury, has become more valuable than ever.
Jozy Altidore scored one goal in 31 Premier League games last season, he managed two goals in one game against Yobo. The likes of Edin Dzeko, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi will be champing at the bit to ‘test’ themselves against the veteran centre-back.
Beyond a brief, encouraging cameo against Scotland, Peter Odemwingie continues to flatter to deceive upon his return to the national side. He looked clumsy against Greece and was largely anonymous against the United States.
The euphoria is dripping away from the Osaze return. Nigeria married an opera singer, only to learn she’s lost her voice.
Keshi has a lot of work to do to both prepare the side for the opening match and, beyond that, to get Africa’s champions out of the group.
In principle, it shouldn’t be that hard, Nigeria have the talent and the players…it’s just such a shame that so many of them are sitting at home.