And so, the countdown to the World Cup enters its final stanza, with the release of squad lists, most provisional, but a few like that of Brazil, the final 23. For Nigeria, the release of a provisional squad of 30 provided a few surprises with the inclusions of Rabiu Afolabi who last featured for the Super Eagles as a member of Adegboye Onigbinde's ill fated 2002 World Cup squad, little known Sochaux forward, Brown Ideye as well as Monaco's Haruna Lukman and Everton's Victor Anichebe. In deference to those who constantly berate the absence of local talent in the National side, two home based players in goal keeper, Akpan Bassey and defender Terna Suswan were also named.
However, Nigerian handler, Lars Lagerback, in drawing up his first squad since his taking over as Super Eagles handler has stayed largely faithful to the team of his predecessor, the much maligned Ahmodu Shuaibu. This is perhaps understandable considering the time factor and the fact that the completely inept Nigerian football authorities have bungled every attempt at organising any friendly matches for the studious looking Swede to run the rule over the more fringe elements of the National setup.
The consequence, avoidable as it was, is that Lagerback has been unable to see his charges in full fledged action and had to rely on a monitoring mission to Europe that took up the better part of two months to draw up his first squad list. There are of course obvious pitfalls with this approach, paramount of which is the inability of certain players, well documented in the Nigerian context, to transfer their good club form to the National team. Thus while current club form is an important consideration in selecting players for the National team, some players simply seem incapable of transferring excellent club form to the international stage; Christian Obodo and Kalu Uche are just a couple in a long list of Nigerian players who have been brilliant at their clubs but rather less than stellar on international assignments.
On the whole, it seems Lagerback has decided to adopt the cautious approach. No doubt the paucity of time at his disposal has played a role in ensuring that the team he has chosen closely mirrors that of his predecessor, Ahmodu Shuaibu. No fewer than 23 of the 30-man squad were an integral part of Ahmodu’s teams during the World Cup qualifiers and the Nations Cup in January earlier on in the year.
However in naming such relative newcomers as Haruna Lukman, Brown Ideye and Peter Utaka, as well as offering a second chance to players like Rabiu Afolabi and Victor Anichebe, Lagerback has left himself with sufficient wriggle room to ensure that one or two wild cards may make the final cut when he submits the list containing the final 23 to prosecute the World Cup on June 1st. Lukman in particular has put in some encouraging performances in the run in to the end of the French Championnat this season and could just provide that elusive creative spark, still glaringly absent in the Eagles Midfield. Whether he can actually make the first eleven is a different question altogether and I suspect Lagerback may want to err on the side of caution and not start him against Argentina (If he makes the final 23). However, being in the squad could potentially give Lagerback a stronger hand as he could prove to be a joker in the pack. The same to a lesser extent could be said of Brown Ideye.
This could be just what the doctor ordered for a squad that gave some indication that they were developing a team ethos during the Nations Cup but overall seemed to be sorely lacking in invention and the element of surprise. The inclusion of so many players who could possibly line out on the flanks is a further indication that Lagerback understands that this is a critical area where the Eagles ability to hurt the opposition should be given priority attention. This has been made more pressing considering the potential weaknesses noticed in Diego Maradona’s squad list where the impressive Javier Zanetti and combative Midfielder Esteban Cambiasso were inexplicably left out of the Argentine Provisional squad. Zanetti’s absence is particularly shocking as Argentina seems to be short of any recognizable full backs save for Gabriel Heinze who to my mind seems to have left his best days behind him.
Lagerback’s tactics against the Argentines should surely include an attempt to stifle the Argentine midfield which has experienced but now sluggish personnel such as Juan Sebastian Veron while unleashing the pace and creativity that several players on the Eagles roster such as Chinedu Ogbuke, Osaze Odemwingie, or one of the surprise inclusions like Anichebe or Ideye can provide down the flanks. For this strategy to succeed however he needs a player in the middle of the park who can release the ball quicker to the forwards and this is where Haruna Lukman can come in.
Uncharacteristically, the weakest link in the Super Eagles right now appears to be the absence of a lethal focal point in the attack. Yakubu Aiyegbeni is probably the most recognizable point man in the team, but he has generally flattered to deceive in his previous outings for the Eagles. Obafemi Martins patchy form for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga means that he can only be expected to play a bit part role in the World Cup while fan favourite and perhaps Nigeria’s most impressive player in the course of the qualifiers, Ike Uche is still on the road to recovery from an injury that kept him out for about 8 months, meaning that he played little part in his club’s season and was absent from the Nations Cup for Nigeria. Lagerback will have to keep his fingers crossed that Uche can gain some kind of form and take advantage of the rest afforded by his long absence from the game to come back fresher to pose a more effective threat to the Eagles opponents at the Mundial.
As for the defence, Lagerback should count on some stiff competition right across the defence. John Shittu may have been a permanent fixture on Bolton’s bench during the course of the season, but his performances for the Eagles in the heart of defence during the Nations Cup were a few of the bright spots in an otherwise dour campaign. The recall of Ayodele Adeleye, who was somewhat harshly treated following his one poor performance against the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia during the World Cup qualifier where Nigeria drew 2-2 with the Tunisians is also heart warming as it gives him another opportunity to impress and gain a place on the Plane to South Africa. The ongoing battle for tying down the left back spot between Taiye Taiwo and young upstart Elderson Echejile is set to continue but Echejile I believe currently holds the upper hand in this particular duel.
All things considered, Lagerback has probably made the best of a bad job and given himself a fighting chance of maybe, just maybe getting a credible outing in South Africa.