Yesterday's 5-4 win over Japan in Nigeria's opening game of the Men Olympic football is a story worth many headlines. The major one being the embarrassing travel plan of the Nigerian team. It made world headline news underlining pitiful circumstances of the country's Olympic preparations. That this U23 team overcame the difficulties of arriving in Brazil barely six hours, as widely reported, before the Japan game is a testimony to their strength of character. In fact, it is arguable that the Nigerian U23 team could have won this game going away if the travel plans had characterized a more serious Olympic preparation.
Beyond the travel embarrassment, Nigeria acquitted itself reasonably against Japan to take the three points at stake. Those points are important. However, we learned a few things as well from the game.
First, this Nigerian team is going to be unpredictable at the Olympics. The offensive power is clearly evident. Sadiq Umar demonstrated yesterday that he will be a force not just at this Olympics but also at the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Of course, the early comparisons with a similarly-built Kanu Nwankwo is misplaced as both players are different in style. Sadiq was a handful and a nightmare for Japanese defenders yesterday. The only issues with him at the moment is strength as sometimes he is easily pushed off the ball and he appeared to tire late but then who knows whether that was a function of the abject Nigerian travel plan.
Second, the Nigerian Olympic team with 61% of players already with at least an appearance for the full national team cannot be considered an underdog at this Olympics.
Third, the Nigerian midfield is a bit light particularly in providing cover for the defense. This can become an ongoing issue. However, it is difficult to be certain on this considering that these players were playing in difficult circumstances and in positions requiring a lot of work after horrendous travel. This may explain the subpar display by Mikel Obi and Usman Mohammed. Mikel, particularly, should be expected to have far better games going forward.
Fourth, the defense was woeful. The continuing inability to play an effective offside trap will be exploited by opponents. Yesterday, Japan repeatedly exploited this huge Nigerian problem. It clearly led to the second goal when Shehu's positioning kept the Japanese goal scorer onside. More worrying is that the tactical change in personnel to sustain the lead failed. Siasia added an extra defender for a 5-man base after withdrawing a midfielder in the second half but yet it did little.
Fifth, Etebo Oghenekaro is proving to be a valuable goal scorer despite playing behind the forwards. He was able to score at a high percentage clip. No one could have been more clinical yesterday. Further, his work rate continues to be impressive.
After yesterday's game and a valuable win in difficult circumstances, the team should be expected to get out of the group and into the quarter finals. But it is important that the realization of such progression lies on the defensive abilities of this team to face the tests that are coming and most of those will explore their difficulty in playing the trap.