This is the ninth of a 10-part series examining some of the best performances by the Super Eagles over the last two decades i.e. from January 1, 2001 to date, in no particular order.
This will strictly cover competitive internationals, so there is no place for, say, Nigeria’s friendly wins over Argentina in 2011 and 2017, or the win against France in 2009. There is also the possibility that a defeat might find its way into the ranking, if the actual performance was impressive enough to warrant it. Football is, after all, low-scoring and, as such, highly amenable to the effects of luck.
This entry is on a game that restored Nigeria to the showpiece event of African football.
Date: October 13, 2012
Venue: UJ Esuene Stadium, Calabar
October 8, 2011 is a historic date in Nigerian football, but not for a good reason.
On that day, Ibrahima Traore scored in the 90th minute of the final Group B 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier between Nigeria and Guinea. That equalizer silenced the National Stadium in Abuja and confirmed a crushing reality: for the first time since 1986, Nigeria had failed to get through an AFCON qualifying series.
The consequences were drastic: Samson Siasia, despite not having been in charge for the first two matches of the series, was roundly derided and sacked. In his stead, Stephen Keshi was appointed to lead the Super Eagles. He had initially been tapped for the role before Siasia got it, and so this seemed more like righting a “wrong”.
Keshi immediately set about refreshing the national team, eschewing stars and big egos in favour of the lowly and the humble. “We will take proper decisions based on where players are and look ahead to the next phase, identifying who are the right players to stay and who are the right players to go,” he said upon his appointment.
“We need to start looking forward. Let’s bring those who are available, capable, and in good shape to come and play for us and fight to get a place in the national team. They will have to fight, because when I was playing I was fighting.”
The message was clear: the slate would be wiped clean, with everyone on equal footing to start with.
Central to Keshi’s determination not to pander to egos was a focus on the local league.
The former Togo and Mali boss invested a significant amount of time working with players from the Nigerian top-flight. He convened large camps even during the league season as a means of bridging the gap between the home-based players and their foreign-based counterparts, requiring the clubs release players to him.
He unearthed a few interesting names. Godfrey Oboabona was a versatile defensive player at Sunshine Stars, capable of playing both at centre-back and at the base of midfield; Azubuike Egwuekwe was a tough, uncompromising centre-back at Warri Wolves; the pint-sized winger Ejike Uzoenyi was full of skill and invention. In a way, if one were to make liberal (and also somewhat generous) parallels to the 1994 team, these three broadly fit as reimaginings of (respectively) Keshi himself, Uche Okechukwu and Emmanuel Amuneke.
There were a number of early friendlies, notably against Botswana (which ended goalless) and a 2-0 win against Zambia. Nevertheless, the team was very much a work-in-progress: Nigeria began this qualifying series in rather unconvincing fashion, drawing on the road against Rwanda in February 2012 before finishing the job at home.
That earned them a meeting with fellow West African nation Liberia.
However, what seemed an eminently winnable tie proved rather more difficult than envisaged, as Nigeria fell behind early on in Monrovia. Two quickfire goals put Keshi’s Super Eagles in the lead, but Liberia reeled them back in to record a creditable 2-2 draw and heap pressure on Nigeria ahead of the return leg in Calabar.
Lineups (4-2-3-1): Vincent Enyeama; Efe Ambrose, Godfrey Oboabona, Azubuike Egwuekwe, Elderson Echiejile; Nwankwo Obiora, John Obi Mikel; Nosa Igiebor, Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa; Emmanuel Emenike
Keshi made four changes to the team that had drawn in Monrovia in September. Mikel got his first start for the Super Eagles since the appointment of the Big Boss, and there was a place from the start for birthday boy Ahmed Musa.
Oboabona, who had looked unimpressive out-of-position at right-back, was moved into the heart of the defence to replace injured captain Joseph Yobo. Ambrose came into the side to deputize at right-back, and Echiejile started in place of Juwon Oshaniwa.
This was perhaps the first working prototype of a Keshi team, and is remarkably close to the group that would start at the Africa Cup of Nations three months later.
Whereas in the first leg a flat 4-4-2 had left the middle of the park somewhat threadbare, here the inclusion of Mikel was ostensibly to add a further layer of protection and control. However, in order for that to be relevant, it needed to be in service of goals; it was impossible not to cast the mind back to the debacle that was the qualifiers for the 2012 edition.
Thankfully, the opening goal came inside a minute, as Ambrose rose to head home a teasing delivery by Moses, only his second international goal.
Scoring so early was important for the dynamic of the tie, as it completely altered Liberia’s game plan. The Lone Star now needed to score more than once on the day, and so could not afford to keep things tight before going for it later on. It showed: their attempts to get back into the game were devoid of conviction, even though they did pretty well steadying themselves after going behind.
That said, they did get through on a few occasions, notably calling Enyeama into action after the half-hour mark when Sekou Oliseh outwitted Igiebor in the middle of the park before letting fly. This flagged up a concern: the midfield pivot of Obiora and Mikel was defined more by its tidiness in possession, and so lacked the requisite aggression to really dominate. Surprisingly, it was the visitors with the greater share of the ball.
That said, the Super Eagles continued to carry a threat upfront. Moses, nominally starting on the left, had a free role, but really the key relationship here was between Emenike and Musa. The former’s propensity to drift out wide opened up spaces in the centre for the latter, whose movement often does not get the credit it deserves. He looked the most consistently dangerous player in the opening period: the fired an effort wide after 15 minutes, and then doubled the lead in the 38th after latching on to an Emenike pass.
Nigeria had frittered away a lead in the away leg, and so Liberia would have come out after the restart confident the tie had not completely gotten away from them. Whatever hope they may have held was quickly put down, however. Having laid on the first, Moses got in on the scoring himself, finishing from Igiebor’s pass for 3-0 in the 48th minute.
Igiebor then won a penalty for Mikel to convert two minutes later, before Ikechukwu Uche – on as a sub – fired in a fifth in the 72nd minute via the woodwork.
Both sides traded a goal apiece inside the final 10 minutes, first Patrick Wleh beating Enyeama to an Oliseh through ball and scoring, before Moses completed his brace with a header from a Mikel cross with two minutes of regulation time left.
A resounding win held a lot of encouragement for Keshi, but also highlighted concerns.
While a degree of fluidity seemed to be developing in the final third, the defensive structure of the side clearly was in need of intervention.
The introduction of former youth international Kenneth Omeruo into the national team set-up was vital in this regard, as he formed a strong, organic partnership with Godfrey Oboabona. Also, a debut for defensive midfielder Ogenyi Onazi here with eight minutes to play planted the seed that would germinate in brilliant fashion at the AFCON in South Africa.
Nigeria would win a third African crown ahead of schedule and in unpredictable fashion; however, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the lottery. This win over Liberia, and getting through this qualifying series, was Nigeria buying the ticket.