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CAN leaves Nigeria nervous

John Obi Mikel of Nigeria(C) breaks through the Zambian defence

Nigeria’s role as one of African football’s established superpowers means there is inevitably a furious post mortem after their performances at a major tournament. It has been no different in the wake of their third-place finish at the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. Bronze might be a satisfactory achievement for most, but the Super Eagles are anxiously looking ahead to their participation in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ finals just over 100 days from now.

Elimination by long-time rivals Ghana in the Nations Cup semi-final in Luanda has given Nigerians a fear that they are becoming the continent’s nearly men. The national team have now reached the last four of the continental championship in five of the last six events, but they have only advanced to the final once. That was as co-hosts in 2000, and they haven’t won the Cup of Nations since 1994.

But controversial coach Shaibu Amodu was generally pleased with his side after the event, telling "Even though we had a bad start, it took experience and youth to come together to be able to go as far as we did, which means the team has got potential."

The resultsNigeria showed their potential in the first half of the opening game against defending champions Egypt with Chinedu Obasi’s gloriously taken goal suggesting the Super Eagles were in Angola for serious business. However, by the end of the game, they had surrendered 3-1. An unconvincing 1-0 win over Benin, who actually took the game to their much-fancied opponents, put Nigeria back on track and they made sure of second place in Group C with a 3-0 win over Mozambique in Lubango. In the quarter-finals, Nigeria were outplayed by Zambia but won through in a penalty shootout after a goalless draw. In the last four they failed to break down Ghana’s defence after conceding an early goal from a corner. The 1-0 win over Algeria in the third-place match seemed scant consolation.

Even though we had a bad start, it took experience and youth to come together to be able to go as far as we did, which means the team has got potential.

The goodNigeria are still a tough side to break down and have plenty of fire power up front, even if finding the target proved difficult at times in Angola. Yakubu Aiyegbeni was particularly guilty of squandering gilt-edged chances, but there is no doubting his pedigree as a top player. Obafemi Martins has recovered from surgery on his shin and Obasi emerged as a genuine starter for the side, adding pace and flair on the right side. Waiting in the wings, too, is the youthful Obinna Nsofor, whose goal ensured Nigeria finished third at the tournament in Angola. Peter Odemwingie also proved his worth in the attack with his marauding runs, quick interplay and two goals against Mozambique.

The badDespite the semi-final place, Nigeria’s performances were sluggish enough to place coach Amodu under fire for most of the event. Opening with the heavy defeat to the eventual champions didn’t help. Nigeria’s defence needed more polish but what is arguably their biggest weakness is not something that can be suddenly solved. Nigeria had a golden generation of creative midfield players who helped make the side into a formidable force a decade ago. Augustine ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and to a lesser extent Finidi George all had the creative flair to set up chances for their attacking colleagues and score some vital goals themselves. Now Nigeria have not been able to find a replacement and their midfield seems top-heavy with players of a more defensive nature, like John Obi Mikel, Seyi Olofinjana and Dickson Etuhu. Mikel did show a more offensive passing range against the Black Stars, but only Odemwingie was comfortable running at defenders.

Up nextNigeria’s programme for their final FIFA World Cup preparations has not yet been set but they are expected to play on 3 March. In South Africa, they will meet Argentina, Greece and Korea Republic. The Argentines and Greeks were opponents when they were at the first FIFA World Cup in the USA in 1994.

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