Nigeria’s Super Eagles are a team in transition, but this Sunday they go up against Afcon favourites – Cote d’Ivoire – in Rustenburg in their biggest test so far.
The Ivorians are not writing off their Nigerian opponents knowing that this is their 12th consecutive berth in the knockout stages of the Afcon whenever they have taken part in it.
Stephen Keshi and his men know they face the tournament’s most talented squad with an intimidating record of qualifying from the group stages of the Afcon undefeated in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Supersport.com identifies 10 key areas in which the Super Eagles will need to defeat the impressive Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire.
1. Sticking to a game-plan. In the 2012 Afcon final, the Zambians with odds against them stuck to a game-plan based solely on fending off the Ivorians and hitting on the break before that epic shootout leading to their first title. So Keshi needs a game-plan. His team will either have to attack or defend, and defend with zero errors too. And it is good, Keshi has said: “I have a game plan (against Cote d’Ivoire) but that is for the players.”
2. Psychology of players. Nigeria have 17 players making their first appearances at the Afcon except for captain Joseph Yobo, Vincent Enyeama, John Obi Mikel, Ikechukwu Uche, Austin Ejide and Elderson Echiejile. Definitely Keshi and his backroom staff have their work cut out in building confidence in the squad ahead of facing the Ivorians with top stars like Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba and Gervinho.
3. Sorting out the full-backs. Coming up against a team with attacking wingers who run at defences and switch places, Keshi surely needs to work on his full-backs especially their mobility on and off the ball. Unfortunately Nigeria picked a squad without a natural right-back. Keshi prefers Efe Ambrose in right-back over his preferred centre-back role. Expect Sabri Lamouchi to detail Gervinho to run at Ambrose if he starts at right-back.
4. Who pairs Godfrey Oboabona? It is safe to say Oboabona is Keshi’s most trusted man in the heart of defence right now. But will it be Kenneth Omeruo or Yobo pairing him? The Super Eagles’ backline surely needs a defensive leader against the experienced strikers of the Elephants. Yobo fits the bill but Omeruo has also impressed based on performance.
5. Attacking through the wide men. Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and Ejike Uzoenyi are the wide men in the team. They can trouble the Ivorians though Musa has put in a poor performance at this Afcon so far. But Moses can be used to good effect as a left winger to keep Emmanuel Eboue busy. As for Uzoenyi, he is yet to make an appearance but remains a good option for Keshi.
6. Exploiting Ivorian’s heart of defence. Kolo Toure and Souleymane Bamba are definitely Cote d’Ivoire’s best centre-back pair from all indications. Togo’s Hawks showed through pace and physical style that the Ivorians can be breached at the back and even through the heart of their defence. So Emmanuel Emenike who is Nigeria’s most physical striker could do a lot in this area. Good too he has a pace decent enough to trouble any defence.
7. Packing the middle. Current African Football of the Year, Yaya Toure is a master in midfield whether it is accepted or not. He’s a box-to-box man, switches play from defence to attack for a big man and shoots with deadly accuracy. With Fegor Ogude suspended, Keshi sure needs to shore up the middle. Options are Mikel and Reuben Gabriel to hold the midfield or play both of them as defensive midfielders. The trio of Obiorah Nwankwo, Ogenyi Onazi and Nosa Igiebor are lightweights and attack-minded for this role.
8. Conceding/defending set-pieces. This is where the Super Eagles need to be wary. The Ivorians are good from dead-balls and even threatening when they get it around the D. So they will need to concede less of such dead-balls around their goal area.
9. Winning key battles. A handful of key battles for this game. Yaya Toure versus Mikel. Moses versus Emmanuel Eboue, if the Nigerian is played wide of his team’s left side of attack. At the other end, it will be Gervinho versus Echiejile or Gervinho versus Ambrose, depending on the line-up. These among other key battles if won by the Super Eagles gives them a chance to upstage the tournament favourites.
10. Training for spot-kicks. At this stage, penalties could settle it. Keshi by now should know his best five penalty-takers as the tournament’s knockout stages begin this Saturday. But it could stretch beyond five kicks and that’s the reason all 11 players must be drilled in the art of taking spot kicks. At the same time, goalkeepers could play key roles as well should a shootout suffice.