Martins and Iheanacho boost Nigeria, but Super Eagles fail to beat Swaziland
Struggling Nigeria were held to a 0-0 draw by Swaziland on Friday in the first leg of African World Cup qualification -- but while the result may have fallen below expectations it was not all doom and gloom.
There is still the second leg to come in Port Harcourt, where the Super Eagles are expected to finish the job next week. Here are five things of note from the first game:
1. Sunday Oliseh's team selection is getting easier
Oliseh has only been in charge for a short period, so his team is taking time to settle. However, based on his squad selection, and barring injuries, it is almost certain who the coach will play in his first XI.
While the defence has seen the most chopping and changing, largely because of injuries, the personnel are all but set. Kenneth Omeruo and Leon Balogun have been especially susceptible, but Efe Ambrose has done a competent job in the two games he has played and bailed out his central defensive partner on at least two occasions against Swaziland. Both Omeruo and William Troost-Ekong should be worried about their places.
John Mikel Obi and Ogenyi Onazi are the first choice central midfield partnership, with Sly Igbonu in pole position for the attacking midfield place but facing stiff competition from the emerging Kelechi Iheanacho.
Only one position remains truly up in the air: that of lead striker. So far, Anthony Ujah, Odion Ighalo and the now-retired Emmanuel Emenike have all partnered new captain Ahmed Musa up front. None have yet staked an unshakeable claim, although Ighalo will consider himself first in line.
2. Nigeria's tempo was too slow
Until the closing quarter of an hour, there was little tempo to Nigeria's play. Oliseh's men were comfortable with their patient build-up, controlling possession against a deep-lying opponents. But possession is nothing without penetration, and the Eagles only managed two shots on target.
Only the introduction of Obafemi Martins and Kelechi Iheanacho saw the tempo go up a notch. Oliseh needs to get his players playing more quicklyr, especially during transitions, and fashion a way to break down defensive teams.
Swaziland were unwilling to leave their half on home ground, and they will be even more conservative on Tuesday. Another failure to break them down in the second leg could mean things become touch and go for Nigeria.
3. The Martins and Iheanacho effect
The two players the fans have wanted to see play for the Super Eagles in recent months have been Martins and Iheanacho. While they did not exactly light up the night in Swaziland, they were two of the game's outstanding figures once they arrived from the bench.
Martins put himself about, upped the tempo, chased the ball down and created opportunities for the chance-starved Ighalo. Meanwhile, Iheanacho was more positive than both Sylvester Igbonu and Rabiu Ibrahim had been before him. Like Martins, he got himself involved, and his technique and one-touch passing were exactly what the team needed.
Having those two on the pitch allowed Oliseh to push the team forward in the final stages. He had five attacking players for the last 20 minutes and, had it not been for a resolute rearguard action from Swaziland, could have nicked the win.
4. Mikel is still vital for Nigeria
For all the criticism he continues to attract, Mikel remains one of the most important players in the Nigeria set-up. Whenever he plays, he keeps the midfield stable and the Super Eagles always seem more confident with his ball shielding, one-touch passing and control. Even when Nigeria went "route one," only a few of his long balls did not find a teammate. It is no surprise that Oliseh's team ceded control when he was taken off in the second half.
However the decision, met with disbelief back home, could have been prompted by Mikel himself. The Chelsea man is wary of playing on artificial turf, but the fact that he did -- and lasted until the 71st minute -- appears a sign of his increasingly consistent devotion to the national cause.
5. Igbonu and Rabiu spell end for class of 2007?
As Oliseh sought a creative way to unlock the well-organised Swaziland defence, both Igbonu and Rabiu came off the bench. But within 10 minutes, Ibrahim was taken off for Iheanacho.
In that time, he barely got three touches, and unless he suffered an injury it is an ominous sign, not just for the player but for the Golden Eaglets' class of 2007. Rabiu, Lukman Haruna and Macauley Chrisantus were the shining lights of the team that won the Under-17 World Cup in South Korea.
But Macauley, who top scored at that tournament with seven goals, has yet to earn his senior international stripes, while Lukman was taken off in the opening half hour of Oliseh's first game against Tanzania and has not been recalled since.
With Oliseh's carrot and stick approach, and Iheanacho's rising profile, Rabiu might have just been usurped from a position he once threatened to make his own.
Colin Udoh is a Nigeria football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.