Two games in March for Nigeria provides an opportunity to separate players currently vying for positions in the team. Two of those positions -- goalkeeping and left back -- are the most hotly contested. In each of those positions, three players compete not only for the starting spot but also for a place in the squad to the World Cup. While the final decisions on this issue may not come until the summer camp, it is quite likely that the international friendlies on March 23 and 27 would go a long way to assist the coaches in making decisions.It is possible that players may begin to separate themselves from the competition based on performance in one or both international friendlies.
In this piece, we take a preliminary look at each player contesting for those positions and evaluate their current chances. Of course, the view shared here is simply my subjective view. However, such a view is based on watching them perform for the national team and for those players who have barely played an international, their club performance assists in this evaluation.
This is one position where none of the contestants have particularly given the Nigerian fans a dose of confidence. In the past, except at the 1998 World Cup, the goalkeeping position had always been one of Nigeria's strongest. That is far from the case this time. Nevertheless, it is possible that one of the three contestants may begin to win the confidence of Nigerian fans with an impressive performance in the coming days. Of the three, Francis Uzoho has barely played. However, in 45 minutes of action against Argentina he earned praises but when those 45 minutes are put into context then Francis still has a lot more minutes to play in order to affirm his status as worthy of being the starter at the World Cup.
The other two players -- Akpeyi and Ezenwa -- have played enough games to give Nigerians an idea of what they are capable of doing. Ezenwa appears to be the front runner between the two. He concedes a goal after 171 minutes on average compared to Akpeyi who concedes a goal every 65 minutes (see Table 1). That is a world of difference! In fact, Ezenwa's average could even be much better if one took away the four conceded in one game when Nigeria was overrun by Ghana at the WAFU Cup. His rate of conceding a goal is quite good at the international level.
Ezenwa's biggest drawback is his tendency to lounge, with both feet, at a breakaway attacker. On the plus side, he oozes confidence and has sharp reflexes, at least sharper than his competition for the position. His real competition for the starting spot is Uzoho. Uzoho has a magnificent physique and his biggest advantage is his ability to control aerial balls which is a huge plus against international opposition. However, he is not exactly astute in timing his move off the goal area to confront oncoming breakaways nor is he quick to get down at balls.
After 60 appearances, veteran left back Elderson Echiejile faces fierce competition for his position (see Table 2). His years of experience will not afford him any protection because it is clear that he has slowed down over the years. However, the fact remains that the performances by his competition -- Ola Aina and Brian Idowu -- have not exactly assured Echiejile's relegation to the bench. That might change after the two internationals this month. In a sense, this is a watershed moment for Echiejile as a Nigerian international.
But in the dark clouds and dark moments, a light still shines through for Echiejile. For one, he remains the most competent of the three defenders when it comes to winning aerial duels. That remains a strong aspect of Echiejile's game. Unfortunately, that isn't the only thing that Coach Rohr will expect from his left back. Both Aina and Idowu are better in one-and-one duels and better in joining the attack at critical moments. As for pace, Echiejile is again trailing both Idowu and Aina.
The goalkeeping and left back positions remain the most vexing for Nigeria going into the March international friendlies. However, those internationals may provide answers and induce confidence in the two areas if a clear starter begins to emerge. That may be the most valuable outcome from the two upcoming internationals.