This is the fourth 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. The third entry is here.
This entry commemorates possibly the best overall performance of Amodu Shaibu’s third stint in charge of the national team.
Date: October 11, 2008
Venue: National Stadium, Abuja
While there is a tendency to lump both into the same category, there is a vast difference between Shaibu Amodu’s two World Cup qualifications.
The obvious one is that, whereas for 2010 he began the series in charge, for 2002 he was handed the reins more than halfway through and with the Super Eagles’ prospects already hanging in the balance. Beyond that, however, less talked about looking back is how the styles on both occasions differed wildly.
Unlike in 2001 when Amodu led an ebullient attacking team that scored nine goals in three games, his 2008 advent heralded largely dour fare. Nigeria laboured to wins over the might of such nations as Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique, and stumbled over the finish line with a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Kenya on the final day of 2010 World Cup qualifying.
The man was himself unimpressed, and admitted as much after the first five matches. “In terms of results yes, discipline good, but performance we are still working on that to improve and play better.”
This game, against Sierra Leone in Abuja, was the one occasion through the series were the Super Eagles properly cut loose. In fact, it is arguably Nigeria’s most dominant competitive win at any point in the century in terms of sheer attacking output. While that can be accounted for to some degree by considering the level of opponent, as established previously this team was in no shape to turn its nose up at anyone, considering the level of performance to this point, and that would follow.
Nigeria came into this game with a perfect five-from-five record in the Second Round of World Cup qualifying, and yet to concede a goal. With passage into the next round secured, Amodu was however keen to pursue a favourable outcome, believing it would provide an advantage in seeding for the next round.
There was also the hum of criticism that the team was copping for not blowing teams away, barely restrained by the results. Any less than a win here would surely have raised the decibel levels.
Sierra Leone, although out of the running, were unbeaten in the qualifiers since losing by a lone goal to the Super Eagles in Freetown – a run of three matches that featured wins over South Africa and Equatorial Guinea.
Starting lineup (4-3-3): Dele Aiyenugba; Chidi Odiah, Joseph Yobo, Danny Shittu, Taye Taiwo; Sani Kaita, Christian Obodo, Kalu Uche; Osaze Odemwingie, Ikechukwu Uche, Obinna Nsofor
A surprisingly strong selection for what was effectively a dead rubber. The only upheaval came in midfield, as Mikel John Obi was excused on compassionate ground. At the time, Chelsea were in the middle of an injury crisis in the middle of the park, and so manager Luiz Felipe Scolari reached out to Amodu to request Mikel be let off. In the spirit of forging better relations between clubs and the Super Eagles, the Brazilian’s plea was granted.
Kaita started at the base of the midfield, anchoring Obodo to the right and Kalu to the left.
Nigeria first threatened via set-pieces: Odemwingie fired over following a scramble in the box after a free-kick, and Shittu had a teasing delivery taken away from him at the last by goalkeeper Christian Caulker.
From the resulting corner, Sierra Leone were once again indecisive, and Obodo was on hand to poke home as the ball went loose inside the penalty area.
There was no clever tactical scheme at work here. It was simply a thoroughly superior side playing like it, and looking too good for their guests. However, the commitment to getting the full-backs forward was clear: Nsofor on the left forged a strong understanding with the rampaging Taiwo on the overlap, narrowing to open up the flank for the Marseille man to be played in, or slipping him through himself.
Inside the opening five minutes, a trademark Taiwo cross-cum-shot was fumbled by Caulker, and that attacking movement would bring Nigeria’s second: once again, Taiwo flashed a shot goalward, the goalkeeper saved, but the attack was sustained and Nsofor scored following another shot that came back off the upright.
On the other flank, there was a little more variety. Odemwingie often received the ball in very wide, deep positions to allow Odiah underlap him, or he would simply dribble infield to combine with the other forwards. Occasionally, he swapped positions with Ikechukwu Uche; in those situations, Odiah would instead make runs on the outside.
On their part, Sierra Leone continually saw attempts to build out through midfield break down, but had pockets of success when they played more directly. The inability to turn and defend while facing their goal is one that has plagued many a Nigerian defender – the likes of Isaac Okoronkwo and Joseph Enarkahire were famously bad at it, and Shittu, earnest but burly, was no different.
Aiyenugba was fortunate not to give away a penalty in the 25th minute after being forced to advance off his line with Sheriff Suma breaking in behind. Seven minutes later, a simple bouncing ball caused enough jitters that Yobo hooked the ball over his own goalkeeper and in to level the score.
However, aside sporadic moments of self-harm, the Super Eagles’ dominance was undeniable: Odemwingie had added a third on the stroke of half time, the sixth of 12 Nigerian shots to find the target in the first half, while Sierra Leone only managed one. The scoring was completed by Odiah, running into the open right channel, cutting inside and shooting inside the near post, just six minutes after the restart.
The lack of a proper reference point upfront (Ikechukwu Uche, for all his finishing ability, was not that) worked here because Nigeria were on the front foot from the off. It would be a lot less successful in the Third Round: after three draws in the opening four matches, Amodu seemed to panic, and started with two at a time – Michael Eneramo and Yakubu Aiyegbeni – for the final two matches.
By the end of the qualifiers, despite a place at the World Cup, Amodu was on extremely shaky ground, and would lose his position following a third-place finish at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations.
This, in Abuja in 2008, was as good as the football got in his third spell in charge.