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Arsenal can lay down a marker

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The Eagles have landed

When the final whistle blew on Nigeria's 1-0 victory in their opening match of the 2006 African Nations Cup in Egypt, the sense of relief within the Super Eagles camp was almost as evident as their unbridled elation.

Whenever Nigeria compete in a tournament their fanatical followers - and often the world at large - expect nothing less than triumph. After all, they have a virtual conveyor belt of talent in all age groups that is the envy of most of their rivals.

However, despite announcing themselves on the world stage during their golden period in the mid-to-late 1990s, the inability of the country's football administrators to build on that foundation has led to untold frustration and ultimate failure to qualify for Germany 2006.

The NFA has arguably been the chief reason for the decline in their fortunes, with instances of mismanagement of funds, poor relations with top players and inept organisation constantly plaguing their preparations.

'I was quite concerned going into the Ghana match,' says head coach Austin Eguavoen from the team's base in Port Said, 'because since our last qualifier against Zimbabwe in November, we didn't play a single friendly, so I had no way of trying out different combinations before selecting my final squad.'

Eguavoen was heavily criticised for inviting around 50 players to the training camp in Faro, Portugal. The NFA initially refused to pay some of the bills and the squad was locked out of their hotel twice before the manager himself returned to Abuja to prize away a portion of the sponsorship money from kit manufacturers, Adidas.

'We had big problems getting money from the NFA to pay for the hotel, travel and daily allowances. They said I shouldn't have taken so many players and when I picked the final squad they said there were no surprises so all the others invited were superfluous.

'But what they fail to realise is that without the benefit of friendlies, I couldn't evaluate anything. There are so many good players in Nigeria, one cannot afford to ignore any of them. Even though my final squad contained few shocks, it was the result of a necessary process.'

One of Eguavoen's biggest concerns is finding the right combination from the plethora of talent at his disposal.

The likes of Aiyegbeni Yakubu and Celestine Babayaro are not even in the squad, yet the coach's major dilemma remains who to leave out of the starting eleven. The position of playmaker in central midfield is of particular interest. Skipper Jay-Jay Okocha missed the Ghana match through injury and is unlikely to face Zimbabwe either. He was more than ably replaced by Marseille schemer Wilson Oruma, a veteran of the 1996 Olympic gold medal winning team in Atlanta.

'Jay Jay has not trained with the squad yet and will not play against Zimbabwe,' Eguavoen revealed, 'so Oruma will carry on in that role.'

It will be interesting to see what he does when Okocha is fit to play. 'I have been thinking for a while about playing Jay-Jay and Oruma in the same team. The argument against it is that they are too similar but in my opinion they are both such complete footballers that they could compliment each other.

'For me it's not impossible to have them in the same team. You saw against Ghana that Oruma is not only a dangerous attacking force but can tackle and win the ball as well. It will all depend on who we are playing against and what the specific circumstances are, but in my mind I believe it can be done.'

Jay-Jay, of course, will call time on his international career at the end of the tournament, and Oruma is already 30-years-old, so neither can be considered as a long term proposition. However, waiting in the wings is 18-year-old wonderkid, Mikel John Obi, whom Eguavoen insists will play some part in Egypt 06.

'It can be difficult to choose when there are so many good players available,' admits Eguayoen, 'but it's a 'problem' I welcome.'

Obi, the subject of a protracted tug-of-war between Manchester United and Chelsea, is one of the most exciting teenagers in world football and everyone is waiting to see him unleashed in the tournament.

'Mikel is a special talent but still very young,' says Eguavon, who skippered Nigeria to their last Nations Cup triumph in 1994.

'Right now it is good to give him the experience of being part of the senior squad, helping him to feel comfortable. A lot is expected of him and we are aware not to over-expose him too soon. For now, it is good that he's getting used to being in the national squad. The lack of warm up games prevented me from giving him senior international experience in a less-pressured environment.

'We have other highly talented and proven players in his position - remember we also have Kanu - so we are in no hurry with Mikel. Having said that, I did not bring him here not to play and I intend to use him at some stage. He is the future of the Nigerian team and he has a lot of time to come into his own.'

Eguavoen is fortunate to have strength in depth in nearly every department, the notable exception being left midfield.

'We have been searching for a naturally left-footed player to fill the wide role for some time but we still haven't found one,' laments Eguayoen. 'It's very important for the balance of a team, and you could see that against Ghana.'

To compound Eguavoen's predicament, Newcastle left-back Celestine Babayaro is absent from Egypt and Ifeanyi Udeze left the training camp in a huff to return to Greece, claiming he wasn't given a fair chance to challenge for a starting berth.

That leaves 20-year-old Taiwo Taye as the only option on that flank.

'The situation with Udeze was unfortunate, but nothing unusual in Nigerian football,' the coach continues. 'Nobody has an automatic right to play in the team and I have treated everybody equally. He chose to leave so we carry on without him. If something happens to Taiwo, though, we will really have cause to worry.

'I'm considering the option of playing Obafemi Martins wide on the left because he is left-footed, but he can only operate as an attacker so it would all depend on the circumstances.'

Reflecting on the Ghana match, Eguavoen was satisfied with the performance but purely on the basis that it was their first truly competitive match in three months.

'I was worried before the game because our preparation was not good,' he admits, 'so I am happy with the result. It was nowhere near the best we can do and there are areas that we need to work on.

'Traditionally, matches between Ghana and Nigeria are very tight. There is a lot of pride at stake because we are old rivals. We are in the toughest group so it was a huge advantage for us to get three points. In this case, the result was more important than the performance.

'They were well organised and played defensively and it was hard to break them down. Plus, they were dangerous on the counter attack. I felt we held a slight edge in the overall play, but they had some good chances and could also have won.

'The important thing for me is that we build on this good start,' he continues. 'Victory against Zimbabwe will put us in the quarter-finals and we are not thinking further than that at the moment. We can play much better than we showed against Ghana and we are working towards peaking at the right time.'

Of the identity of Nigerian's biggest challengers for the title Eguayoen does not deviate from most observers. 'Cameroon are always very strong and look well organised; so too Tunisia and Cote D'Ivoire. You can't rule out Ghana on the basis of one result either, and Egypt have home advantage. But we will be ready to face anyone at any stage.'

The early signs suggest that Nigeria are likely to be in the mix when the tournament reaches its business end. They have arguably the strongest squad in Egypt, and, if Eguavoen can gel together the right combinations and answer the midfield conundrum, he may yet emulate his Egyptian counterpart in becoming only the second man to win the trophy both as a player and a coach.