In the recent 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers, Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi took his chances with players from the country’s domestic league. The results were positive he says - the Super Eagles top Africa’s Group F with four points - but their performances were laboured and they struggled to score in a 1-0 home win over Namibia and the dramatic 1-1 draw in Malawi at the weekend.
Keshi has won three of his nine matches in charge, drawn four and lost two with the Eagles not scoring more than two goals in any, but the former international captain insists things are coming good. "Gradually, we will overcome the poor scoring credentials because what we are doing at the moment is building a new team in the midst of crucial qualifiers, which is very difficult to do.”
Taking a bow on the big stage
In November last year, Keshi was appointed in place of Samson Siasia after Nigeria failed to qualify for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, an event they have won twice. ‘Big Boss’, as he is known, made it clear from the start that players from the Nigerian Premier League would no longer be considered just “training materials”, but rather would get a decent chance in the rebuilt team. And true to his declaration, the core of the side for the recent qualifiers have been the NPL stars he has been working with since December: Godfrey Oboabona, Juwon Oshaniwa, Ruben Gabriel, Ejike Chrisantus Uzoenyi and Azubuike Egwuekwe.
It was only two years ago that not a single player from the NPL made the final cut for the squad at South Africa 2010. Keshi has also stood his ground regarding some big names, leaving the talented England-based trio of midfielder Jon Mikel Obi, striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni and forward Peter Osaze Odemwingie out of his plans for the busy month of June, which also includes this weekend's AFCON qualifier against Rwanda. With the pressure on, Keshi’s first competitive home contest against Namibia was looking like it would end in a disappointing goalless draw, but Ikechukwu Uche popped up to score a sublime match winner. Before then, Uche, Victor Moses as well as John Utaka had wasted a rash of chances that might have buried the defensive Brave Warriors.
It was a similar story in Blantyre, with midfielder Gabriel finding the net only in the 89th minute before the Malawians struck back at the death. Keshi, skipper of the Eagles at USA 94, knows that it takes time to build players and a unit. “The team, and particularly the strikers, are under tremendous pressure to deliver, and that is why they make mistakes in front of goal and in the process that comes to haunt them,” reasoned Keshi. “We must be patient and very soon the goals will start rolling in aplenty. This is a fairly new team and it takes time for us to reach the level that our established players have reached.”
Failure in front of goal is not Keshi’s only worry and he says the performance against Malawi was mixed. “I’m happy because the players did well, but unfortunately we lost valuable points in the last minute,” he said. “We created chance after chance in the first half and refused to take them. And then, to score late in the match and lose the lead was totally unacceptable. We have to go and work on our weaknesses.”
Moses: Best is yet to come
A new arrow in Keshi’s quiver is Wigan's Victor Moses, who committed to represent the country of his birth earlier this year and started the two games against Namibia and Malawi. The winger has yet to settle in a green jersey, but he is also confident things will turn around “Nigerians will soon start appreciating my game,” declared the explosive winger, who represented England at various age levels.
Moses says of his home debut against Namibia: “I know a lot of Nigerians would be disappointed that I didn't find the back of the net after several chances. I am sorry, but I want them to understand that this was my first game in front of the Nigerian crowd. I battled with the weather, but that's not an excuse for not scoring. The chances came, but I was not that lucky. There are many more games ahead and it can only get better. All I ask from fans is that they should be patient because my best is yet to come for the national team."
Next March, Nigeria will welcome Kenya in continuation of their Brazil 2014 campaign and it is expected that by then Keshi and his side will take their chances with both hands. And like Moses, former Togo and Mali coach Keshi is asking for more time, but saying: “Are Nigerians ready to be patient? That is the big question.”