By Kayode OGUNDARE
By the time centre-referee Ramos Palazuelos brought proceedings to an end in the Nigeria versus Colombia game, it was priceless to see the look on Coach Samson Siasia’s face.
Yes, the game was largely inconsequential result-wise, his team had already sewn up qualification after two straight wins and the last game was supposed to be a ‘formality’, like we say here in Nigeria.
However, tactics-wise, and in the spirit of team-building and psychology, it was a gamble which fell through spectacularly.
We, fans and coaching crew alike, were all agreed that the team was a work in progress with Siasia saying as much even with few weeks to the Olyimpics.
But, as it turned out, we all got carried away with the back-to-back victories over Japan and Sweden and glossed over the glaring hiccups and rough edges in the team.
For one, there was tentativeness and a lack of synergy between the central defensive pair of William Troost-Ekong and Shehu Abdullahi which, in part, led to the concession of four goals against Japan in the opening game.
This is understandable because the duo were likely playing a competitive game together for the first time ever since Ekong was not a part of the initial team and joined up just a few days before the start of the competition.
By the time they came up against Sweden in the second game, the Ekong/Abdulahi partnership was relatively tighter and better composed than it was in the first game. In my opinion, Ekong was one of our better performers against Sweden and I was looking forward to the continouos improvement and understanding between the duo as the competition progressed.
Then, Stanley Amuzie who played at left-full back showed flashes of brilliance as a modern-day wing-back, defending stoutly and moving up to join the attack. So it wasn’t a surprise for me that he whipped that inch-perfect cross in for Sadiq Umar to head home for the only goal of the game. It was the least Amuzie’s game deserved.
In the middle, captain John Mikel Obi appeared to have struck up a good understanding with the silent but effective Okechukwu Azubuike, giving Usman Mohammed the freedom to roam and Oghenekaro Etebo the licence to push forward and get goals while acting as a foil for the strikers.
Attacking pair Umar Sadiq and Imoh Ezekiel played off each other intelligently in the earlier games and you cannot but commend Ezekiel’s work-rate in always bringing the lanky but handful Sadiq into the game with his energy.
After two 90 minutes game, we thought we were beginning to see the semblance of a collection of players being gradually forged into a team and this was not just because of the straight wins. Though not perfect, the team was starting to find its rythym and balance as a result of playing together.
Up next was the final match which was of no consequence because Nigeria had already cemented leadership of Group B. However, one would have expected a team in transition, still trying to find equilibrium, to seize every opportunity to play together for as much as reasonably permitted because it is in playing together that you find synergy and team understanding.
To my unease, when the team list came through, I saw that Siasia had made FIVE changes to the team which started the first two games. Daniel Akpeyi took the place of Emma Daniel in goal; Ndifreke Udo switched places with the enterprising Amusie at left full-back; Kingsley Madu replaced Shehu in central defence; the diminutive Popoola Saliu was preferred to Mohammed Usman in the middle while Aminu Umar was on instead of Ezekiel in attack.
In his defence, Siasia wanted to give each player some playing time and, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with this. It gives everyone a sense of belonging, keeps players who are a card or two away from suspension out of harm’s way, guard against injuries to key players and generally makes the team happier.
Changing FIVE players, technically 50% of the total, was a certainty to put any team in a state of flux. No disrespect to the ability of the players who came in but the fact that the other players were already getting used to each other and creating synergy and understanding, any decisive disruption in the composition of the team was sure to affect its balance.
And it sure affected the team. Not just about the outcome, which was predictable given the slip-shody display that was also not helped by the fact that they conceded a goal as early as the 4th minute, but by the fact that the chemistry and understanding which an evolving team needs most was sorely lacking.
Rather than a consolidation of the gains from the first two games, we were treated to a disjointed display which gave the boo-boys, and Siasia’s eternal critics, ammunition to question his judgement and tactics. Some wonder, with merit, if the team was good enough to get to the medal zone, let alone repeating the triumph of 1996 in Atlanta.
I saw a team lacking chemistry, using a wrong formation and employing faulty tactics against the technically gifted Colombians.
At the end of the day, all we had to show for our effort was a thumping defeat (could have been more than two goals actually), loss of confidence in and by the players, Etebo’s injury scare and one more formidable enemy still left in the race to the gold medal.
Siasia’s job, between now and Saturday evening when the U-23 Eagles file out against Denmark in a quarter-final fixture, is to revert the team back to the former line-up (hopefully there are no lasting injuries) and fashion tactics which plays on the team’s strongest points.
Saturday’s game will be won in the middle of the pack against a very direct European team and this is where Mikel must step up to the plate because possession will be key, the defence must be mobile and territorially aware because the Danes will attempt to play on their intelligence while Ezekiel and Sadiq (yes, that’s the combo I’ll go with) learn to take their chances because there won’t be many.
Hopefully, Denmark will bank on the fact that they humiliated the Nigerian lads at the Four-Nation Suwon Tournament in South Korea and get complacent so we can seize the moment.[Watch video of Nigeria vs Denmark at Suwon Tournament here]
Whether they do or not, Saturday night will be bruising and Siasia cannot afford another tactical gaffe.
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