To the cynic, Nigeria’s result against Cameroon on Sunday had quite a few caveats: Two of the three goals came after the recklessness of Stephane Mbia came to a head early in the second period, it was only a friendly, and that against an Indomitable Lions side that is at its weakest for possibly 30 years.
However, this misses the point.
More than the raw value of the result is terms of team-building, its biggest impact was in lifting the hitherto limp morale of the Nigerian public. Going into next month’s World Cup qualifier against Swaziland (or Djibouti, if you believe in the near-impossible), it was vital to have a positive mental image of the team, to see that they have the capacity to play coherently. It buys Sunday Oliseh that little bit more time, in that time-worn but effective currency called patience.
Much has been made about his Uefa certification, but the worry has always been whether or not he possessed the tools to transmit ideas. This display goes some way to allaying those fears.
Has Nigeria’s performance earned Oliseh time with an expectant public?
This is also a bit of a double-edged sword, though. Moderation is a trace element in the Nigerian stratosphere and, with the same unreasonableness with which the DR Congo result was roundly booed, the Cameroon performance will be viewed now as a base level, the standard against which subsequent performances are measured.
Teams under construction rarely exhibit this sort of consistency though; it would not be at all surprising to find the Super Eagles struggle against Swaziland next month. It may be viewed as a retrograde step, but is simply a reflection of the difficulty that comes with team-building.
In that regard, it was a pleasure to see some of the materials recruited for the process begin to look the part. Lively winger Moses Simon was full of running and daring, especially in the first half when he seemed on a mission to take on the entire Cameroon left flank. Some of it was untenably exuberant, and his game still lacks finesse, a fact which made him easier to suss out as the game wore on.
This was not helped by Elderson Echiejile’s ultra-conservative positioning, hanging back rather than moving forward to offer support and open up space for the Gent winger. It seems a distinct strategy by Oliseh; Simon was similarly isolated against Tanzania, with the usually attack-minded Kingsley Madu reined in.
Simon | The winger delivered an eyecatching performance…at least in the first half
He was a lot quieter in the second period, but was on hand to score the game’s second: a swift counter beautiful in its simplicity, complete with a laser-beam ball over the top from Ahmed Musa to find Simon.
It was the sort of pass one might have expected from John Obi Mikel, who was at his controlled best. It is unlikely he will ever be able to seize a high-tempo game by the scruff of the neck, but when Mikel and a football game synchronise on a common wavelength, few produce sweeter melodies. Here, he strummed placidly on his guitar and the Cameroonian midfield danced in the moonlight of Brussels.
He also did not shirk his defensive duties, impressively dropping into the defence line to snuff out a counter-counter after Leon Balogun had brought the ball out of defence. It was quite the sight, Balogun steaming downfield from centre-back, not so much the hot knife as the warm, runny butter off which Cameroon slipped and fell away. It would have been fitting if his pass at the end had come off; the Mainz man was irrepressible, unflappable in defence and accurate with the ball at his feet.
The losses to the team of both Kenneth Omeruo through injury and Godfrey Oboabona through diplomatic red tape may prove to be the proverbial blessing in disguise. Never overly convincing on the ball at right-back, Balogun appears to have found a home at centre-back. For the first time since making his debut for the national team in March 2014, he looked perfectly suited to this level.
The same could be said for Oliseh: finally, he looks like a man who belongs at the helm of the Super Eagles
Super Eagles pic: www.completesportnigeria.com