September 13, (THEWILL) – Nigeria’s senior national football team, the Super Eagles, kicked off their race to Qatar 2022 World Cup, in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) region with two Group C matches in the September international window. In a group where they were drawn against Liberia, Cape Verde and the Central African Republic (CAR), the September schedules pitched Nigeria against Liberia at home on September 3 and away at Cape Verde, four days later.
However, even before the selection of players for these significant games was finalised, it became clear that there was a need to make contingent plans to handle a situation where Super Eagles players plying their trades in the United Kingdom were going to be restricted from making the trip to Cape Verde. This was because the Archipelago Island was one of the countries red-listed by the UK for the prevalence of COVID-19 and football clubs in the UK did not want their players to be away for 10 days at a stretch, which was the standard enforced quarantine period for anyone re-entering the UK from any of the red-listed countries
The Super Eagles put that worry aside and engaged the Lone Stars in the first qualifier at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Surulere, Lagos where the pitch managers did a brilliant job handling the conditions on playing grounds, considering that there was a downpour before the 5pm kickoff time which left several parts of Lagos State flooded. The Lone Stars and the superstars of the Super Eagles played without any soggy pitch problems, focusing only on their football and the determination to begin the race to Qatar with victory and the confidence boost that comes with it.
It was Nigeria that got a deserved victory at the final whistle. Leicester City’s forward Kelechi Iheanacho, who finished last season with the Premiership record of being the only player to have scored a goal on every day of the week in one season, was the two-goal hero for Nigeria in that Friday, September 3 opening match of the qualifying series. Iheanacho’s two first half goals decided the game as Nigeria played a controlled match without giving away too much to the visitors.
For the first goal, Iheanacho profited from a short corner kick that looked like something straight out of the training ground. He exchanged a one-two pass with Alex Iwobi before firing into the near corner, allowing the goalkeeper, Ashley Williams, no chance to react fast enough to keep it from going in. Iheanacho doubled that 22nd minute lead with his second goal in the 44th minute. Again, Iwobi was involved as a throw-in from the left side of the Liberian half was allowed to drift into the danger area. After Everton’s Iwobi nudged the ball behind him, Iheanacho held off his marker strongly enough to turn towards goal and poke the ball in.
There were some Nigerians who were not pleased that chances for Nigeria to punish the Liberians even more, especially in the second period, were frittered away as no further goals came about. They also queried the manager’s ability to read the game, questioning his selection choices and concluded that Super Eagles Coach Gernot Rohr appeared to be making substitutions arbitrarily rather than focus on a d need to strengthen a weak position or improve the game plan. The German introduced Genk’s Paul Onuachu for the conservative Victor Osimhen of Napoli, while the two-goal forward Iheanacho was rested to give Ahmed Musa the chance to feature in the 85th minute.
The game was soon over and Nigeria bagged all three points and a two-goal difference for a winning start that placed the Super Eagles firmly atop Group C. The other group game between CAR and Cape Verde, which was played two days earlier at the Stade de la Réunification, Duoala in Cameroon, ended one goal apiece leaving each side one point. Therefore, after the opening bit of football, Liberia was at the bottom of the group as the only country without a point. Attention quickly turned to the next fixtures.
With the situation still unchanged and Cape Verde very much in the red-listed countries of the UK, Nigeria was going to be denied the services of key first-team players in all three departments of the defence, midfield and attack. Significant names that Nigeria was going to be without included Everton’s Iwobi and Leicester’s Iheanacho, who combined successfully for the two goals against Liberia and Wilfred Ndidi, Iheanacho’s teammate at Leicester and a solid commander of the midfield advance towards attack. Rohr was also going to be unable to field talents, such as Watford’s duo Oghenekaro Etebo, William Troost-Ekong and Brentford’s new signing Frank Onyeka. Furthermore, because Scottish football operated under UK guidelines, it meant Rangers’ Joe Aribo and Leon Balogun were out of the team.
It got even worse for the German coach because, although the selection of the squad to prosecute the qualifiers made allowance for this, he had the number of players available to him cut down by a further double subtraction. Rohr was denied selecting the duo of Bordeaux’s Samuel Kalu from Ligue 1 and Tyronne Ebuehi, who was currently on loan with Serie A’s Venezia from Portuguese side Benfica. The two were said to have failed a COVID-19 test in controversial circumstances reminiscent of the case involving Alex Iwobi during the final stages of the African Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Rohr was left to make do with a squad of 19 players, including a much-changed defence. It was a situation that none other than Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, himself foresaw when he asked the UK government to provide players with exemptions to allow them to honour their international commitments, even if it meant them travelling to any of the UK’s “red list” countries. This was the same premise behind Rohr’s conclusion when he pointed to the exemptions England enjoyed during the Euro 2020 competition this year. But, no such exemptions were granted and Nigeria had to make do with the circumstances as they were.
On September 7, without the UK players, Nigeria’s Super Eagles kept their leadership of Group C in tact with a 2-1 victory at the Estádio Municipal Aderito Sena in Mindelo, Cape Verde. It was not the most impressive of performances by any means, given the gap in quality between the two sides, with Cape Verde 43 places below Nigeria’s 34th position in the current FIFA Ranking. Yet, as snappy a win as it was, which depended on an own-goal from Kenny Santos, a Cape Verdean defender, it was all they needed to secure the all-important three points and maintain a perfect start to the race to Qatar 2022.
In the absence of first team defenders Balogun and Troost-Ekong, the quartet of Jamilu Collins, Shehu Abdullahi, Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem of Rohr’s makeshift backline allowed Dylan Tavares the opener to give the hosts the lead after only 19 minutes of play. The goal was against the run of play and it illustrated the poacher’s gift of Tavares because of the execution. It was not the kind of start that Rohr was expecting, even with his side looking very different from the one that had beaten Liberia four days earlier.
Fortunately, having Napoli’s Victor Osimhen eligible to play paid off handsomely. The striker, who is serving a two-match ban for the red card he was issued during Napoli’s Serie A season’s opener against Venezia, drew Nigeria level 10 minutes after the Tavares goal. Osimhen displayed his striker’s instincts by taking full advantage of a defensive slip-up to pounce on a rebound, after Super Eagles’ defender Jamilu Collins’ cross was directed goal-wards by a poor clearance from Cape Verdean Kelvin Pires.
The time was ticking away in the second period while the score remained level as the hosts grew with confidence the longer the game went on. The chances that came the way of the Super Eagles were not optimised as more than once, Ahmed Musa was guilty of profligacy. Rohr decidedly rang in the changes on the attacking front to get the victory. Lorient’s Terem Moffi replaced Musa while Henry Onyekuru was introduced in place of Moses Simon. Onyekuru almost marked his introduction with a goal after being on the pitch for a minute but his left-footed strike, off a counterattack, was saved.
The seeming elusive winner came via a gift from the Cape Verdeans in the 76th minute, as much as it can be said to have come to bear due to the pressure the Super Eagles incessantly mounted on the danger area of the Blue Sharks. A lack of communication between defender Kenny Santos and keeper Vozinha, resulted in a back pass which left the goalie stranded, as the ball went over Vozinha’a head and crossed the line. It turned out to be the winning goal that earned the Super Eagles a N20 million windfall promised them for victory against Cape Verde, by Allen Onyema, the Chairman of indigenous airline company and Super Eagles’ sponsor Air Peace.
The heavily changed squad had done enough to fashion a comeback that saw Nigeria maintain an early grip of proceedings in the Group C qualifying series. Rohr’s charges gained the maximum points required to top the group under the challenging circumstances. Yet, it did not need to have been this difficult just as Nigeria did not have to be without her best players to prosecute as important an international function as a qualifier for the most important football event on the global stage, where every point is of significant weight.
In the next window, Nigeria will be facing a less challenging prospect in the double-header against bottom-placed CAR. With most of the team expected back, the Super Eagles are the clear favourites over both legs, on paper. Should they earn full points in both, the Super Eagles will make the final group fixtures, which include a trip to Liberia and hosting Cape Verde, with all the confidence in the world and with the assurance of finishing on top the group guaranteed.
The momentum is firmly on the side of the Super Eagles and when October comes, it will be worth seeing them file out in the home tie against CAR, on October 9, with the full strength of the squad in place and the possible featuring of some new names that have proven themselves.
Yet, THEWILL believes it was a missed opportunity that Nigeria did not join other countries to petition FIFA to force clubs that held back Super Eagles players to enforce the five-match ban penalty. The fact remains that every extra pressure counts and that some pushback from significant football countries like Nigeria can go a long way in bringing about positive change in limiting the excesses of football clubs in the perennial country versus club conflict.