With the final warm up match of the Super Eagles ending in a comfortable looking, if slightly flattering 3-1 Victory over North Korea, the Nigerian National team can at at last look forward to their daunting opening game against Argentina with cautious optimism.
The result will no doubt have gone some way towards assuaging some of the concerns of millions of Nigerians fans back home regarding the chances of the Super Eagles at the World cup, now barely a week away.
However, while there was some improvement, notably in the work ethic of most of the players, this win would have failed to convincingly address a few of the lingering concerns harboured by a preponderance of their fanatical supporters. As a good friend of mine always says, Nigerian teams are generally judged by two criteria by the Nigerian Public, the first being the ability to win games but perhaps most crucially by what he terms, “the Eye test”. While I do not share this same view, particularly with the current generation of players who are less technically gifted than some of their more illustrious forbears, it remains true that the Nigerian side’s more recent performances have left quite a bit to be desired on the aesthetic level.
On a purely functional level, Lars Lagerback seems to have made some improvements that have got the team believing again. While beating a team ranked 105th in the World is no great achievement, there have been some positive indications that the team may have turned a corner and things may be looking up. Lagerback’s more scientific approach seems to have struck a chord with his players, increasing the internal competition within the team and providing an objective basis for the players to evaluate and improve on their personal performances. The results are already becoming apparent on the pitch with the players, including some of the erstwhile notoriously laid back ones applying themselves more assiduously. The only question now is whether these slightly perceptible enhancements will have come on time to make the desired impact against one of the teams with the most glittering array of superstars on the globe, when the two sides clash in a couple of days time.
So, did we learn anything new from watching the game against North Korea ? Precious little, but perhaps more of an indication as to the shape of the tactics and formation Lagerback is likely to employ. He seems to favour a 4-4-2 system, but is likely to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation in the first game against Argentina with Etuhu and Kaita providing defensive cover while Nsofor, Lukman and Odemwingie will offer the offensive options in midfield. In the event that the team finds itself behind however, this formation can quickly be transformed into a more offensive 4-4-2 formation. There might be a little variation on this, perhaps with Kaita given a man-marking job on Messi although Lagerback has come out to state that this won’t be on the cards, but he may just be trying to keep some of his options close to his chest.
The aim will no doubt be to frustrate as much as possible in midfield and counter the expected 3-4-3 formation of the Argentines, restricting service from the experienced midfield duo of Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Mascherano and forcing Messi deeper into the Argentine Midfield in search of the ball.
In theory this formation could succeed in stifling the free flowing style of the Argentines, particularly if the Eagles can also impose their slower tempo on the game, alternating this with intermittent bursts of pace. However, with the glut of talent on the Argentine side, no slip-ups can be entertained as the Albiceleste posess more than their fair share of clinical, predatory strikers to take advantage of any sloppy play in defence. This is perhaps, where the Eagles will have to be especially wary as the Eagles backline continues to look brittle and capable of being breached not only by the kind of creative wizardry that Argentina possesses in abundance but also by unforced errors from our notoriously error prone defenders.
On the injury front, it’s no longer news that John Obi Mikel won’t be able to make it but perhaps this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Mikel provided more fodder for his army of critics ( Your’s truly included), who have always doubted his commitment to the National Cause by deciding not to take any risks with his club career at the cost of writing his name in the annals of football folklore by representing his Country with distinction. I say it might be a blessing in disguise, since Haruna Lukman who may have lost out on a starting berth against Argentina had Mikel still been on the team, will now be thrust right into the mix and has provided every indication that he is ready to take over the mantle left by Jay Jay Okocha by providing the creative spark so glaringly absent in the Super Eagles since Okocha quit the scene.
So, we all wait with bated breath for the outcome of Nigeria’s game with Argentina on June 12th. A creditable result could serve as a watershed for this team struggling for the confidence of a people so long starved of success, a poor performance sound the death knell for a Nation’s budding hopes, but whatever the result, Millions of Nigerians will be anxious to see whether this encounter could signal the rebirth of the Super Eagles legendary resilience and stomach for the battle.