The Wolves’ stopper was imperious in goal for the Super Eagles; the lone spark in a disappointing goalless affair in Dar es Salam on Saturday.
If Nigeria coach Sunday Oliseh was previously unaware just how difficult the task on his hands is, the flash of illumination from watching Tanzania stream forward unchecked time and again must have burnt his retinas. If it did not, then his own side’s subpar performance would have done the trick.
It is difficult to reach any sweeping conclusions about Oliseh on the basis of this game, for the chief reason that this is his first game in charge of the Super Eagles. For the bulk of the side, comprising the foreign-based players, there has been roughly four days of preparation under a new management and ethos.
One might even argue the former national team captain is unfortunate. For one thing, the timing of his appointment and the nature of his predecessor’s fall from grace draped him in a messianic toga that is bound to hang heavily. Then again, taking over with qualifiers for the 2017 Afcon already underway completely robbed him of margin for error; indeed, the surprise would have been if Tanzania had been roundly spanked.
As it was, the Super Eagles looked understandably like a team with no real conviction in their actions or movements. There is a general idea of what is required, but a lot of drilling and practical application of learned theoretical aspects is still needed to work out the bugs in the system. For a football team to truly succeed, its components must be assured of their ability to function synergistically, and of the efficacy of their strategy.
Until this happens, and it is a process for which timing is hard to predict, the same issues that beset the team in Dar es Salam will continue to manifest: the absence of cohesion, in attacking, defending and transition; as well as a lack of proper shape. These are not signs of impending doom, much like an infant stumbling is not unusual. Only with time will it be apparent if the theory in itself is ineffective.
In the meantime, the positives must be taken.
Oliseh’s handling of a potentially dangerous situation in-game was particularly pleasing; Haruna Lukman, tasked with bursting forward to link up with Emenike from a #10 position, can have no complaints about his withdrawal after half an hour. His general apathy was evident in his body language, as he sashayed across the park with insulting insouciance. It is not hard to theorize that he may never pull on a Nigeria shirt again—to be faulted once again for a toxic attitude seems wilfully perverse.
His exit, aside the obvious strategic value, will serve as an indication the coach is willing to act swiftly and decisively. If there was even a smidgen of doubt that Oliseh has the ruthlessness to succeed at the helm of the Super Eagles, it is surely now dispelled.
“If we hadn’t made that early change,” he stressed post-match, “we would have lost.”
Lukman’s ignominious exit provided a stark contrast to events at the other end of the pitch, where there was vindication. Carl Ikeme, making his debut at the ripe old age of 29, produced a performance charged with desire to make up for lost time. As the rest of the team crumbled around him, he was a veritable bulwark, all bristly and defiant.
The Wolves ‘keeper spoke of his surprise at his call-up, incredulous like the Biblical matriarch Sarah at his good fortune. It must have seemed even more fantastical to learn he would make his debut; to shake off the looming spectre of a veteran with a century of caps was doubly impressive. His first save showed impressive agility, denying the fleet-footed Mbwana Samatta, while for his second he showed brilliant positioning to tip a fizzing free-kick over the bar.
Like a true showman though, he saved his best for last, lightning reflexes down low to deny Thomas Ulimwengu from point-blank range, before falling gratefully on the rebound.
If Lukman was the reason the team nearly lost, Ikeme was the reason it did not. All of 29, as Rudyard Kipling’s poem goes, he showed himself a man by keeping his head while the rest of the team charged around like decapitated chickens. Where there once was despair at Enyeama’s impending retirement, there is a ray of light.
Nigeria may have lost two points, but it gained a son.