Super Eagles' Afcon qualifier scoreline flatters to deceive
Exactly 39 years to the day on which Nigeria won their first ever African title, the current iteration underwhelmed in their final game of this Africa Cup of Nations qualifier series, despite recording a victory.
In what has got to go down as perhaps their most uninspiring performance of the 2019 qualifying series, the Super Eagles ground out a 3-1 win over group whipping boys Seychelles on Friday night in Asaba.
Odion Ighalo opened the scoring from the spot with a goal that took his tally to seven, making him the series top scorer, at least as of Friday. Henry Onyekuru claimed his first goal for Nigeria, and Moses Simon applied the coup de grace with a deceptively brilliant daisy cutter.
But the copybook was blotted by goalkeeper Francis Uzoho's howler, which gifted the Pirates a goal on the stroke of halftime, typifying the team's efforts on the night.
Like, who cares, bro?
It was always going to be tough to motivate a team which had already qualified for the trip to Egypt in June, and had nothing to play for except group leadership. And so it proved. Despite all of coach Gernot Rohr's pre-match fighting talk, his charges struggled to find any verve.
Seychelles, who had conceded 22 goals in their previous five games, came with the sole objective of damage limitation. They parked the bus from the get go, allowing little space for the Nigerians to work in the final third.
The hosts were forced to go wide, but their crosses were eaten up with ease by the team of mostly part-timers. When Wilfred Ndidi went down fairly easily in a heap in the box, it was a tad fortunate that the referee awarded a penalty.
Rohr was forced to admit that despite the victory, it was a hard slog: "They only defended. It was attack against defence so we tried to come in from the wings.
"We made a lot of mistakes still in the construction of the game so we have to improve."
Learn your history
One way the Nigerians' lacklustre spirits could have been raised would have been to remind them of what a significant day the matchday was. March 22, 1980 was the day the Green Eagles (as they were known at the time) won the first of their three continental titles.
What better way to motivate the current group of players than by reminding them of the big shoes they are filling?
Unfortunately, the entire country forgot. Not once was it mentioned in the buildup to the game, until an Instagram post on Matchday morning.
Defender Kenneth Omeruo, a Nations Cup winner himself, was surprised to hear about it, telling ESPN: "We didn't know about it before the game.
"It would have been good to know, but we thank them for doing what they did for our country and we hope that we can win the trophy in Egypt to honour them."
Onyekuru and Simon give Rohr a headache
Henry Onyekuru, finally, got his first international goal after seven appearances. The forward snuck in behind the Seychelles defense to guide home a professional header.
More than that, he showed why he would have been a big asset to the team at the FIFA World Cup last summer. The Galatasaray gave a man of the match performance with his pace, intelligent running, and constant willingness to take on players.
On the other flank, Moses Simon came on late in the game and wasted no time settling the result with an expertly driven low ball to put the outcome beyond doubt.
Both goals drew praise from Rohr: "In the second half we scored two nice goals. They were very positive and and important when they other team defend so much."
But their performances will now leave Rohr with some big decisions ahead of Afcon. Injuries cost both players a place in last summer's World Cup, especially Simon who was all but a lock at the time.
It led to the emergence of Samuel Kalu, who has been just as phenomenal. With stand-in captain Ahmed Musa in form and taking up one spot, that leaves the other three fighting for two spots.
Good luck making that call, boss.
Is Uzoho really the best stopper?
It was not pretty. Uzoho came out for a free kick he had no business coming for, then totally misjudged the flight, and then punched the ball weakly into the path of Rody Melanie. The Seychelles player did not wait for another invitation before volleying home.
Rohr was quick to back his goalkeeper: "There was an individual mistake that can happen to anybody."
But fans and pundits were having none of it, and the post-match discussion in the press room was whether Uzoho was good enough to be number one. Many argued that he had not shown much improvement since claiming the position out of left field last year.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, and even the almost-forgotten Dele Alampasu are all waiting in the wings, as is the 19-year-old German-Nigerian Maduka Okoye, who has already been scouted by Rohr.
Uzoho will need to nip his error-prone ways in the bud, and fast, if he's to keep his place between the sticks.
Rohr's reluctance to use domestic talent continues
If anyone was under the impression that calling up four local players meant the Nigeria coach was going to field any of them, those hopes were quickly and brutally extinguished.
GK Ezenwa - as usual - was the only one to make it into the matchday squad. This begs the question whether the Super Eagles will ever see a local league outfield player with sustained minutes under the German.
It is unlikely they will feature much in the friendly against Egypt on Tuesday, either. It is a big game, one where the coach would most definitely want to test the level of his wards against a key tournament favourite.
After that, it's Afcon in June. No more time for experiments or mistakes. If NPFL players were going to be used, they would have been by now.