Friday, 14 June 2013

Confed Cup Preview: Team Nigeria

Confed Cup Preview: Team Nigeria
In the time since Nigeria last competed in the Confederations Cup - 18 years ago - nothing has changed for Africa's representatives in the pre-World Cup event. No team from the continent has won the competition, so the Super Eagles fly into Brazil with another chance to write the script.
To do that, they will have to surpass expectations, but they are no strangers to that, either. At this year's African Cup of Nations, Stephen Keshi took a squad that was criticized for its lack of recognized names in favour of a locally tinged side and won the continental cup. Along the way they beat Ivory Coast, who are ranked above them by FIFA, which underlined how Keshi turned their potential into success.
Keshi's Confederations Cup squad has nine different faces from the one that lifted the trophy in Johannesburg and there are some much tougher teams to beat. Nigeria's group includes world champions Spain and South American heavyweights Uruguay and the Super Eagles will do well if they can advance from it.
Tahiti are their other opposition, and Nigerian fans will be relieved they come up against them first. No doubt Nigeria will be jetlagged following two World Cup qualifiers away from home in seven days, plus a trip to Texas before that to play Mexico in a friendly, but not even fatigue will be an acceptable excuse if they do not beat Tahiti.
While that will be seen as a straightforward exercise, the next two games will demonstrate how good Nigeria have really become, and test their depth. Without Emmanuel Emenike - the joint top scorer at the Nations Cup - Kalu Uche and Victor Moses, they will have to find other ways of scoring goals but Brown Ideye and Ahmed Musa have already shown that is not impossible.
Considering Uruguay's recent relationship with Africa during the 2010 World Cup - a dalliance that included a handball, Luis Suarez and Ghana's exit - that will be the grudge match. Should Nigeria triumph, they will probably go through to the semifinals, so the emphasis placed on that clash will be enormous. Few will give them a similar chance against Spain, but if momentum is on their side and Keshi applies the right type of pressure, they could just pull it off.
One reason that may not happen is because this tournament is not the main focus of Nigeria's year. Qualifying for next year's World Cup takes that spot. The country's sports minister made it clear to the footballing authorities that going to Brazil in a year's time is far more important than anything Nigeria achieve there now and has asked that their priorities reflect that.
So far they have. Nigeria lead their qualifying group, so Keshi is free to swerve away from that mission and impose his aims, which are largely based on reputation. The Big Boss cannot stand inadequacy and has often required of Nigeria that they play like the "champions that we are" and he will demand from them that they meet a minimum standard.
He is also intent on showcasing locally nurtured talent and his squad includes eight Nigerian-based players, ahead of the likes of Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins. For Keshi, that means fewer egos and more team unity. The one superstar he cannot do without is John Obi Mikel and the Chelsea midfielder will be the engine room of the side.
Defensively, Nigeria are solid and imposing with Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile holding fort and the experience of Vincent Enyeama in goal. Nigeria have the individuals to better Africa's record at the tournament, but whether that improvement can result in silverware is still a matter of some debate.
Tactics Nigeria will stick to a 4-3-3 formation, which has been their strength in the last few months. "We have perfected it with time," Keshi said recently.
Measure of success Although everyone from John Obi Mikel to Sunday Mba has voiced their desire for Nigeria to win the Confederations Cup, they will be satisfied with less. If the Super Eagles qualify for the semifinals, it will likely be considered achievement enough. Failing to beat Tahiti will be unforgivable, but the other two matches will demand that Nigeria put up a confident enough showing to prove they can hold their own.