Tuesday, August 29, 2017

D-Day Nears v Cameroon: Super Eagles Must Put Up or Shut Up.....

Finally, the long awaited World Cup qualifier against Cameroon arrives. In a space of a week, Nigeria's Super Eagles will host Cameroon's Indomitable Lions in Uyo and then head to Cameroon for the second encounter. Nigeria needs, perhaps, to win one of those games to have one leg into the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. The Nigerian players have publicly spoken on beating Cameroon and heading for Russia. However, the time for the "Big Talk" is over. It is now either Nigeria backs up the talk or tuck their tails between their legs and rue missed opportunities to get to Russia.

I watched Cameroon huff and puff in a home draw against Zambia in a World Cup qualifier last year. Cameroon was dreadful in that game. If Nigeria had walked into that game on that day, Nigeria would have easily taken the three points. However, Nigeria will now face a very different Cameroon team. A team now overflowing with confidence, playing reasonably well, and coming into the game as the African champion. It is a world away from the team that imploded at home against the Zambians.

How did this change come about? Well, recall that the team faced adversity shortly after the Zambian game. Seven internationals invited for the 2017 Cup for African Nations (AFCON) finals declined the invitation and Coach Broos had to quickly find replacements. It was a major blow and Cameroon suddenly fell from expectation of a relatively good tournament run to an expectation of immediate failure. The opposite occurred.

I watched their opening AFCON game and it was clear that the team, devoid of some experienced internationals, was playing much better and it was clear that Cameroon would emerge one of the top teams at the tournament. Not only did Cameroon fulfill that promise, the team emerged African champion and suddenly its previously unheralded players like Tekieu, Ngadeu, Bassagog, Oyongo, and Fai came to the attention of the continent. Bassagog, particularly, was spectacular with his pace down the wing. Goalkeeper Ondoa emerged the best goalkeeper in the tournament. This was, indeed, a new Cameroon and a return to a heroic past. Just before the recent Confederations Cup, Zambo Anguissan played amazingly well in a Nations Cup qualifier against Morocco and crowned that display with super performance against Australia at the Confederations Cup.

It is that team that Nigeria must now confront. Sure, Nigeria is down in confidence after the debacle at home against the underrated South Africans in June. Several of Nigeria's top players -- skipper Mikel Obi, Victor Moses, and Leon Balogun -- are all returning from injuries. Unfortunately, goalkeeper Ikeme's recent diagnosis of leukemia forces Nigeria to expose a positional weakness behind Ikeme. None of Nigeria's substitute goalkeepers has been up to par. For the previously injured players, the big question is: Are they ready? Are they match fit? While their return adds a lot of experience to the Nigerian team, the issue of match fitness is always there with a player returning from injury. It will not be different in this case.

In-Game Issues
Both teams use a 4-5-1 formation as the base. However, Nigeria has varied its formation from 4-5-1 to 4-2-3-1 when attacking. For this particular game, the objective for the teams would be different. Nigeria seeks a win at home and a draw away to assure itself of likely finish on top of the group and a World Cup qualification around the corner. Cameroon cannot afford to leave Nigeria without a point. That much should be clear. These realities mean that the game in Nigeria will be cagey. Nigeria will have the initiative, dominating possession. Cameroon will largely sit back and wait its opportunities via quick counters led by Anguissan and Bassagog. Defensively, Cameroon will be tight and compact. The task is will Nigeria have the ability to breach that defense? It isn't a problem that Nigeria has found easy to address in the past and it will not be easy against Cameroon. However, Nigeria has Victor Moses who has the ability to break down such obstacles with the help of some creativity early from Mikel Obi and his midfield partners. If Nigeria scores early, Cameroon will be forced to seek a goal, which will play into the plans of Nigeria, opening more spaces for Nigeria's attack.

What Should We Expect
I believe Nigeria wins at home by a goal after fighting bravely, throughout, to prevent a tie. That win should come on the back of spectacular wide displays by Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa (If he starts). The middle will be difficult to dominate no matter the striker Nigeria uses. Best bet is to withdraw Iheanacho behind the main striker to help with creativity. Without the ball, it will be a long long day for Uwa Echiejile and, perhaps, it is advisable that Rohr requires Leon Balogun to pay close attention. One hopes that with a lead, Nigeria would switch to a 5-4-1, a formation that we last saw Nigeria use late in games at the 2013 AFCON but we are yet to see Rohr even attempt. For this game, it will be necessary with a lead.

Records Between Nigeria and Cameroon
Nigeria has met Cameroon 21 times, losing in only three games! The record is surprising as Nigerians feel that Cameroon has always been a major obstacle for Nigeria. However, the feeling of despair results from all three losses occurring in competitive games and in a fourth, Nigeria lost a tiebreaker to Cameroon in spite of the game ending in a 2-2 tie. See all the results in the table below.