There are worrying signs for Jose Peseiro and his band of Super Eagles looking to claim a fourth Africa Cup of Nations title — after Nigeria Football Federation had announced that ambitious objective in a national campaign with the tag line “Let’s Do It Again”.
Months ago, the Super Eagles drew 2-2 with Saudi Arabia, when the goals conceded both resulted from goalkeeping mistakes, and one is left to ask how much longer the team can afford errors in the defensive third.
“Let’s Do It Again”, according to an NFF statement, was adopted before the 6-0 deconstruction of São Tomé e Principe in the last game of Nigeria’s 2023 AFCON qualifying campaign.
The players all wore T-shirts with the inscription in their warm ups ahead of the fixtures vs. Saudi Arabia and Mozambique, and the team’s social media handles have used it as a hashtag.
This is a SMART goal for a team like Nigeria, not only because they have won the continental trophy three times — in 1980, 1994 and 2013 — but also because they possess some of Africa’s most fearsome attacking talent in Victor Osimhen, Victor Boniface, Taiwo Awoniyi, Moffi, Gift Orban, and others.
Having that firepower is only part of the equation, however; supplying the ammunition is another, and keeping the rearguard safe and secure is a different conversation entirely. At the end of this international break, it is clear that, for all the talent the Super Eagles have, the holes in the team bear comparison with Challenger Deep.
Let’s start with the obvious.
Since Vincent Enyeama’s departure, and the short-lived tenure of Carl Ikeme, Nigeria have struggled to find a goalkeeper to fill his shoes.
To illustrate the extent of the problem, Nigeria selected just three major goalkeepers between 2002, when Enyeama made his debut, and 2015, when he was unceremoniously forced to retire; Austin Ejide and Dele Aiyenugba were the other goalkeepers with significant playing minutes in that 13-year span.
Enyeama was the undisputed first choice, and he kept goal the majority of the time. Ejide was the clear deputy, except for a short time during the 2008 Nations Cup, when Enyeama fell out with then coach Berti Vogts for non-football reasons and was relegated to third choice, with Aiyenugba promoted.
Where the Super Eagles had essentially one goalkeeper for 13 years, they now average one every year. Still the problems persist. Uzoho’s mistake during 2021 AFCON qualifying saw him lose the spot to Okoye, who then proceeded to make the howler that saw highly fancied Nigeria eliminated by Tunisia in the quarterfinals of the tournament.
Reinstated again after a brief interlude when Adeleye was selected, Uzoho returned for the AFCON qualifiers and these friendlies, and all hell broke loose. Of the four goals conceded by the Super Eagles in the friendlies, three resulted from Uzoho’s mistakes. A particularly egregious mistake resulted in the opening goal by Saudi Arabia, as he redirected a routine free kick into his own net.
He conceded the other goal by Saudi from another weak free kick; that took a slight deflection but still it could have been saved.
Former defender Mobi Oparaku, who won Olympic gold with Nigeria and played at the 1998 World Cup, said the Super Eagles could not win the Nations Cup with Uzoho in goal
“You can’t rely on a goalkeeper who makes basic errors to win a tournament like the AFCON,” Oparaku told OwnGoalNigeria.
“Uzoho hasn’t improved from 2018 when he made his debut. Goalkeepers get better with more games and exposure but his case is different. He is regressing… with him in goal, it will be hard if not impossible for Nigeria to win the AFCON next year.”
Peseiro’s first act after taking up as Nigeria coach in 2022 was to defend Uzoho’s World Cup qualifying mistake, and he was forced to back his goalkeepers again after a torrent of backlash following the game against Saudi Arabia.
“When I arrived here, I remember I was told to change the goalkeeper,” Peseiro said in his post-match remarks.
“I spoke with all of [the goalkeepers], and no one feels comfortable because everybody attacks them.
“I like our players. When they make mistakes, it is my responsibility. The goalkeepers never play freely or calmly because of the people. I don’t know why they attack the goalkeepers every time.
“Why don’t they attack the strikers when they lose the ball or miss a goal, why? They could make mistakes. It is my responsibility. Next time, I need to train him better.”
That training either did not happen, was not enough, or just did effect improvement against Mozambique, and the nerves that Peseiro detailed were on display as Uzoho conceded two more avoidable goals.
It is hard to see Uzoho getting another opportunity, but the alternatives, barely three months ahead of the tournament, are bottom-of-the-barrel thin.
Adebayo appears to be the only other option. And he has his limitations, playing in Israel where he has let in nine goals and failed to keep a clean sheet in five appearances for Hapoel Jerusalem; additionally, he has made only one international appearance.
Goalkeeping is clearly Nigeria’s soft underbelly, one that opponents will look to exploit.
But that is not all.
Peseiro still has not found a settled centre-back partnership, and he started two combinations in the latest internationals. Jordan Torunarigha made his debut against Mozambique and looked like he could be a good prospect in future partnership with Calvin Bassey, but that is not exactly world class.
Nigeria’s defending of free kicks, and even delivery of their own set pieces, had Peseiro vey unhappy after the game against Mozambique, who scored their second goal after having a player sent off.
“We played better than this team,” he said in his post-match remarks. “But our players were thinking it was easy playing against 10. Our corners, nothing. We didn’t win one ball in the corner kicks. My players need to understand, I am not happy with this result.”
Nigeria scored five goals in two games, but Peseiro was also unhappy about their inability to convert the majority of their opportunities.
“I think we deserved much more. We cannot allow this team with 10 [players] to score. Our team is better than this team. We managed the ball well but we need concentration for good finishing, for good passes, good crosses. I didnt like that. Today, we could have scored three, five, seven, eight goals. We created many opportunities.”
Further cause for joy for Peseiro can be found in midfield, where Wilfred Ndidi and Alex Iwobi give reason for optimism: Ndidi has been encouraged to explore his offensive talents at Leicester City this season, while Iwobi has had his defensive edges honed at Everton; combined, their new skills make them a much tougher and effective proposition. The addition of Onyeka’s steel and long-range shooting, with back up from Joe Aribo and Raphael Onyedika, should be music to Peseiro’s ears.
Nigeria’s five goals in this international break, added to the six they put past São Tomé e Principe, proves the Super Eagles firepower, and opponents in Cote d’Ivoire next year will do well to be wary of them.
Boniface was the clear revelation of this international break. His power, strength and excellent foot skills place him as a highly effective counterfoil to Osimhen, and exactly the kind of striker defenders hate to face.
But in the end, as the saying goes, attack wins games but defense wins championships; and Nigeria’s defence is far from being championship quality at this time.
The silver lining is that they have a little more time to work on it; the dark cloud is that even that may not be quite enough.
-Colin Udoh, ESPN