Nigeria rewarded for taking risks
"I love it when a plan comes together." If, like me, you were weaned on the A-Team, an action series from the '80s, then these words from Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith should ring familiar. On Saturday in Cuiaba, it all came together for Stephen Keshi and his Super Eagles.
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The subject of criticism by fans and media after a stodgy and unexpected draw against a supposedly weak Iran, the team responded in the best possible way: with the victory they so desperately needed over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F. Now, a place in the round of 16 beckons.
But this did not happen by chance. At full-time against Iran in Curitiba, the players knew they had dropped the ball. Where the Nigerians trudged off the pitch with drooping shoulders and bowed heads, the Iranians strutted off with a spring in their collective step. It was not for lack of talent, or even, contrary to popular opinion, tactics that the Super Eagles failed to win.
Instead, a slight change in attitude and personnel was required against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Keshi, no stranger to risk-taking, gambled on dropping Victor Moses, one of his star forwards, for Michael Babatunde, a player whose name is only slightly less unfamiliar back home than the Ukrainian club, Volyn Lutsk, that he plays for.
A growing litany of "Babatunde who?" was spreading before the ink was even dry on the team sheet, as pressure swiftly mounted on Keshi for not picking a "known" name like Ejike Uzoenyi instead if he was going to drop Moses. Remember, Uzoenyi was voted player of the tournament at the African Nations Championship in February, and no player deserved it more.
Then there was the individual and collective displays. If they looked turgid against Iran, the players found their form against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Emmanuel Emenike was unplayable, giving Emir Spahic a torrid time. Peter Odemwingie buzzed all over the park, while Babatunde did not take long to silence his doubters.
Ogenyi Onazi, rash and sometimes late in the tackle, nullified any danger, and at the back Kenneth Omeruo stayed glued to Bosnia-Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko. On the two occasions when he did get past the close attentions of Omeruo and Joseph Yobo, Vincent Enyeama was unyielding.
There was no faulting their endeavour, and as such fortune favoured the brave on the one time Dzeko managed to shake off the attentions of Yobo and Omeruo -- the moment could have turned the game in a different direction. Dzeko beat the offside trap and bent the ball past Enyeama for what could have been the game's opening, and perhaps decisive, goal. But it was ruled out for offside.
It was a decision that replays showed was incorrect. Considering Nigeria also had a legitimate goal against Iran disallowed, there are those who would argue that this was even stevens.
When the goal came, it had everything. Risk, endeavour, commitment and a stroke of fortune. Emenike chased down a pass, powered his way down the right channel, and muscled away from the flailing attentions of Spahic. Some referees would have called an infringement, even though replays suggested it was the Bosnia-Herzegovina captain trying unsuccessfully to commit the foul.
This time, luck smiled on Nigeria and referee Peter O'Leary was spot on in allowing play to continue. And then there was the endeavour from Odemwingie. Seeing Emenike go, the Stoke forward had the poacher's instinct to keep pace, sprinting all the way down to arrive inside the box at the very moment Emenike needed someone to receive his cut back.
And as the ball arrived, Odewmwingie had the composure and technique to sweep it in under the legs of one of the Premier League's more outstanding goalkeepers, Asmir Begovic.
The remainder of the game proved to be little more than a slog. A slog which included a match-winning save from Enyeama, helped fortuitously by the woodwork. But it did show, though, that while this team may not quite be the complete package, they do possess enough of the ingredients required to make a relative success of their World Cup.