Nigeria’s preference for doing things the hard way will be greatly tested in Pointe-Noire. Do the Super Eagles have it in them to surmount the odds?
A month ago, it all looked so different for the Republic of Congo. The Red Devils were top of Group A and cruising as they headed into their double-header against South Africa. A win over defending champions Nigeria had made the world sit up and take notice; it was a big leap from fortunate no-hopers to group leaders.
Perhaps it was too big.
One point from two games against South Africa has seen Claude Le Roy’s men cede top spot, and their five-point lead over the Super Eagles has been whittled down to three. However, it cannot be discounted that Congo still have their own destiny in their hands.
If they avoid defeat in Pointe-Noire on the 15th of November, they effectively eliminate Nigeria from the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, having gotten four points (at least) from both legs against the Super Eagles.
The onus then is on Nigeria to chase victory. Congo travel to Sudan on the final matchday, and a win for them there would get them to 10 points, level with the Super Eagles (in the event of wins over Congo and South Africa). What this means is that Nigeria must win in Pointe-Noire by a two-goal margin at least to tie the goal difference in both the home and away legs, paving the way for qualification by virtue of goals scored.
If it sounds like tricky business, that’s because it is. While a defence that was breached twice by South Africa (who, lest we forget, are yet to score at home) is clearly not bursting with quality, defensive organisation is a lot easier to coach. A veteran like Le Roy knows this, as the performance of his charges in Calabar proves.
Then, Congo were organised and disciplined, their strategy simply to break up play in the middle of the park and play around the fine movement of Fode Dore upfront. Tormentor-in-chief on that night Thievy Bifouma, whose brace delivered a famous victory, was on target for Almeria over the weekend against Barcelona; apparently he still knows the way to goal.
At the other end, the presence of Delvin Ndinga, who missed the Calabar leg through injury, gives the Red Devils greater composure in midfield and defensive leadership.
While Nigeria are condemned to win, it is paramount that they do not attack with the same recklessness that characterized the first half of Sudan at home. Nothing emboldens a defensive side than a lead to hold on to, and the full-backs must resist the temptation to bomb forward early.
Goal Nigeria’s James Ezimoha wrote earlier this week about why Juwon Oshaniwa might be a wise choice over Elderson Echiejile for the upcoming match for these very reasons.
Make no mistakes about it, Le Roy’s men have it in them to do some real damage. They may have lost at home to South Africa, but Bafana Bafana put up a massive rearguard action, marshalled by the late Senzo Meyiwa, to keep them at bay.
It is important to highlight this because there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the enormity of the hurdle Keshi and his men are up against. Nigeria certainly has the potential to overcome Congo, but it is by no means fait accompli. Lest we forget, the ‘Calamity in Calabar’ was no smash-and-grab. Congo were fully deserving on the night, and anything less than 100 per cent will not be enough.
The task is made no easier by the fact that Pointe-Noire is an artificial surface. The Super Eagles struggled greatly against Sudan in Khartoum, and made a point of complaining about how much the synthetic turf hurt their movement, as well as ball trajectories. Surely, it must dawn on them now that there is no more room for excuses, as Keshi himself pointed out in imploring them to play the “African Way” – with grit, passion and determination.
If last month’s victory over Sudan in Abuja marked a turning point, now would be a good time to see it. For the first time in the series, the Super Eagles played like something was on the line and produced close to their normal level in that second half. The key was having John Obi Mikel play a more advanced role, would the coaching crew consider this from the start rather than as a tweak?
Hull City forward Sone Aluko also came on to very good effect in the second half, but there seem to be doubts about his fitness levels over 90 minutes both for club and country. If added creativity is required, expect to see him introduced at some point in the game.
This is yet another chance for the Big Boss to repair a damaged reputation, and you can be sure he feels the pressure as well. The presidential decision to have him see through the qualifying series simply adds to it: muck it up now, and there is no higher authority capable of keeping him in a job.
It will also see his stock fall farther in the eyes of potential employees, so ultimately this is as much about the Big Boss’s future as it is the Super Eagles’ chances.
Crunch time it is, and the stakes could not be higher. Nigeria has always been able to up the ante when the chips are down; that really is not the sort of thing one would usually bank on, but it would not be very Nigerian to do it the easy way, would it?