Manu Garba’s team showed their superiority over the Hungarians, but Germany will offer a sterner challenge, and more guile is needed upfront
Perhaps it was to do with the knowledge that, whatever the result, they would progress beyond the group stage. Then again, perhaps it was simply a function of an unchanged lineup growing into an understanding. In any case, the Flying Eagles produced their best performance of the tournament in victory over Hungary.
The result sets up a date with European champions Germany on the 11th. A draw could have gotten them a potentially more negotiable tie against Serbia, but in a tournament Nigeria started tentatively, a win was of the essence. If for no other reason, as a psychological fillip – beating Serbia may be strategically more cunning, but would leave doubts in the minds of the players as to their capability against the top teams.
Goals either side of half-time from Taiwo Awoniyi did for the Hungarians, and both came from attacking quickly into a channel. For the first, Saviour Godwin was released down the right, and his low cross was turned in at the near-post by the burly no. 18 – his first of the tournament, and no less than he has deserved for his endeavour.
The second was the result of an almighty throw-out by goalkeeper Joshua Enaholo into the left-channel, and perhaps gives an idea why he has kept the more commanding Dele Alampasu out of the side. Never mind his greater agility, the accuracy of his throws are becoming quite the offensive weapon: he launched one to set the team on its way to the second goal in the group opener against Brazil.
Besides providing one more attacking avenue, Enaholo has grown in confidence since the opening game. His decision to juggle a cross in the second period may have drawn gasps from the viewership, but not from the bench – they are well aware of what he is about. He is of the Fabien Barthez school: somewhat undersized for the position, unorthodox and exultant in his otherness, a risk-taker, uber-confident. The yield is high – Barthez won a World Cup and got to another final – but along the way, there will be inevitable gaffes.
In any case, he was never subjected to the same level of exposure as in that opener six days ago. It is a comfort to see the understanding of Zaharadeen Bello and Wilfred Ndidi blossom game-on-game, here they were solid and commanding, keeping runaway tournament topscorer Bence Mervo utterly quiet.
In front of the defence, Akinjide Idowu was splendid, receiving the ball and turning away from pressure in one fluid movement; and dropping between the centre-backs to encourage the full-backs up the pitch. His passing was simple: changing the angle of the attack and, importantly, helping Ndidi get time on the ball to advance the play.
When this happened, Ifeanyi Ifeanyi would move slightly right-of-centre, with Sokari dropping deep left-ish, creating a 3-2 shape. This emptied the no. 10 space for one of the wingers to come in off the line and receive the ball on the turn – ostensibly, this was Bernard Bulbwa’s responsibility. However, he failed to fulfil the role (one which Kelechi Iheanacho understands and flourishes in), forcing Ndidi to try to find Awoniyi over the top.
It did not help also that Ifeanyi is essentially a passenger in build-up, more a decoy than an actual passing option. The team struggled with this in the loss to Brazil. His inability to use the ball intelligently prevented the team from finding Iheanacho between the lines, as the Manchester City man opted to remain high up the pitch.
There remains that underlying sense that Iheanacho is being made to pay for his (relative) success at club level. Having arrived unavoidably late to camp, he can have no complaints: the furniture has moved, and his place at the head of the table has been usurped. What is baffling though is the fact that Manu Garba saw fit to take him to the tournament on the back of little preparation with the team, but has no intention of building the team around him, or of even giving him a run-out where he fits best.
The same can be said for Success Isaac and Moses Simon – all three are potential game-changers, and are on a different technical level to the rest of the team’s attacking options. All three have also been peripheral in New Zealand. Indeed, Simon saw his first minutes as a second half-substitute in Taranaki, Success started the opener in an unfamiliar left-wing role, while Iheanacho got an hour playing a position that does not utilize his strengths.
There will be sterner tests to come, starting with free-scoring Germany on Thursday. On this form and performance, the midfield and defence pick themselves, as do Awoniyi upfront and the hardworking Saviour Godwin. That leaves one spot, most vital to the team’s transition from defence to attack.
Bulbwa is full of running and has twinkle-toes, but his game lacks the required intelligence, much as his feet lack a decisive final ball. Perhaps it is time to unleash the Magician from Manchester and let his left wand beguile rather than bludgeon.
culled from goal.com