What Went Right? The Super Eagles just flew around the pitch, arguably the fastest team in this tournament, and they relied on it almost exclusively in all facets of the game. In attack they didn’t so much build up an attack or counter as much as just used their speed to fly by their opponents into the attacking end, which in and of itself cause some mistakes in the back. Managed to use their pace to find space for themselves to get forward. Can you believe their attack was actually predicated on pitch-and-run at this level? Actually got forward pretty well and took their share of shots. Played more with enthusiasm than with any real technical or tactical quality. The good things that happened in attack were all the result of individual achievement more than by collective design. They got very good contributions from the bench. Goalkeeping was spectacular – God knows it had to be.
What Went Wrong? Well, speed is all very well and good, and you certainly can’t teach speed. But at some point and certainly at a high level of football you have to be tactically and technically proficient at something. The level of disorganization was mind-boggling. It was as if the players were told to stand someplace on the pitch, then given the requirements of that position just go for what you know. Given the amount of football talent on this side, I can understand why the president of Nigeria wanted to have an official government inquiry after playing so awfully.
Who Stepped Up To The Plate? You know your team needs help when you play this badly yet your goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, is one of the four or five best in the tournament. Left fullback Chidi Odiah got forward and provided some consistent attacking down the wing. Dickson Etuhu got forward and beat feet into the attacking end pretty regularly. Kalu Uche created some direct attacks pretty well. Target man Aiyegbeni Yakubu was a good provider up front. Nwankwo Kanu and Obafemi Martins made good headway in attack off the bench. Taye Taiwo was the best thing about their defense as a stopper in front of the backline.
Who Didn’t Show Up? The center of defense, Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu was as disorganized as they come. Rabiu Afolabi was useless both in defense and going forward on the right flank, as was Yussuf Ayila in front of the backline (it was the soft center that teams took advantage of). More Nigerian attacks got interrupted because of Chinedu Ogbuke’s dreadful ball skills and unadvised runs into the attacking end.
How Was The Coaching? Lord knows I’ve never like Lars Lagerback. His low expectations and mundane tactical system pervaded the Sweden team for almost ten years. Fortunately it won’t take that long for Nigeria to get rid of him. This is what the FIFA bio says about Lagerback: “He ultimately ended up with Nigeria after he came out top in an interview process that also included Sven-Goran Eriksson, Glenn Hoddle, Bruno Metsu and Ratomir Dujkovic…” Must have been a charmer.
Did They Finish Where They Were Expected? Oh, Hell no. Their group was not the world’s most difficult. Given that they were playing on their continent and had the athletes they had, the Super Eagles at the very least should have gotten out of the group.
Now What? Nigeria has been living on sheer natural athleticism and their reputation for way too long. Even teams in their own region of Africa have figured them out by now. It’s about time this side was taught how to play fundamentally sound tactical and technical football. Start with getting rid of Lagerback.
Some random observations after the third group fixtures:
Greece 0-2 Argentina: The Greeks opened in 5-4-1 heavily defensive formation and the guess is that they did not want to be embarrassed and hoped for the best in the other Group B game. Diego Maradona made wholesale changes in his starting line-up, 7 new starters, knowing Argentina was virtually certain to advance, thereby giving him the ability to see what his second team could do while resting most of his starters. Predictably, Argentina dominated possession and despite the Greeks’ fortified defense, Argentina attacked the box and found cracks, forcing Greek goalie Alexandros Tzorvas to make several good saves. The half ended in a scoreless tie though. Unbelievably, Greek manager Otto Rehhagel brought on a sixth defender for one of his midfielders to start the second half. He must really have hoped to maintain the draw, but the strategy showed zero faith in his team. Why not go for it as the Greeks had little chance for advancement otherwise? Early in the second half, the Greeks did finally manage their first shot on goal when lone striker Georgios Samaras received a long ball and lifted a left-footer around a defender, but the shot was off-target. Maradona on the other hand, stayed confident in his second team and only used one of his three substitutions to bring on one of his normal starters. His faith was finally rewarded when Martin Demichelis followed up his own blocked header off a corner kick by blasting the rebound in. Even with the Argentine goal, the Greeks showed no urgency. Apparently they didn’t mind being eliminated. Really shameful. Lionel Messi did not do much creating in the game, probably by design as Maradona started him on the right wing instead of his customary center forward position behind the striker. Maradona probably told his star to take it easy and let his teammates handle the ball for a change. Messi still created the last goal when his rifled shot from the top of the box deflected off Tzorvas and right to Martin Palermo who buried it just before stoppage time. Then, and only then, did the Greeks show some urgency, getting off more shots in extra time than they had in the entire game up to that point. Their failure to go for it deservedly resulted in their elimination. Maradona’s coaching style is growing on me as his confidence in his team is contagious and the Argentines have responded to it.
Nigeria 2-2 South Korea: Despite having lost its first two games, Nigeria entered this match with a chance to advance if it won and Greece lost. Both teams were immediately on the offensive, but the Super Eagles struck first when Chidi Odiah beat several defenders flying down the right sideline before putting a cross into the box where Kalu Uche snuck around a defender and fired a strike into the net. Extremely poor defensive work by South Korea on the sequence, first failing to stop Odiah on the wing, then not compacting into the box to intercept any cross. Uche nearly scored again on a blast that hit the right post. Goals off set pieces have been few and far between this Cup, but Ki Sung-Yeung put a free kick from just outside the box on the left onto the back post where Lee Jung-Soo’s ugly header attempt failed, but the ball bounced off his leg past the goalie. Minutes into the second half Park Chu-Young curled a free kick into the far corner of the net for a South Korean lead. Nigerian goalie Vincent Enyeama looked to have been caught leaning the wrong way on the kick before his failed dive back at the ball. One of the few missteps by Enyeama who acquitted himself very well in losing efforts. Nigeria blew one of the easiest opportunities you will ever see when Uche played a perfect cross past the goalie in the goal box, where Yakubu Aiyegbeni had a 3-yard shot at an open goal from the middle of the box and still managed to push it wide. He made amends minutes later when he converted a penalty kick after a clumsy takedown by Kim Nam-Il in the box. With ten minutes left, Obafemi Martins got a through ball into the South Korean box and chipped the ball over the sliding goalie, but it went just wide. If Nigeria had not blown so many really excellent opportunities, they would have comfortably won the game. Instead the tie eliminated them from the tournament. With the Greek loss, the tie earned the first entry into the second round on foreign soil for South Korea.
Some random observations after the second group fixtures:
Argentina 4-1 South Korea: Despite calls for Diego Milito to replace Gonzalo Higuain at the forward position, Argentina coach Diego Maradona stuck with Higuain in his starting line-up. On the other side of the pitch, South Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo abandoned the aggressive attacking game they showed against Greece in their first fixture and opened with a defensive 4-5-1 formation. The decision failed early when Park Chu-Yung stuck his foot out toward his own goal on a Lionel Messi free kick and scored easily…for Argentina. One of the worst own goals you’ll ever see as it almost appeared like Park was trying to score for the other team. The South Korean defense failed again on simple cross into the box by Maxi Rodriguez that is headed to Higuain who is all alone near the far post and scored on the easy header. After their defense was barely tested in the first half, Argentine central defender Martin Demichelis made a critical mistake just before the half, carelessly handling the ball just outside his own box and failing to see Lee Chung-Yong closing on him. Lee ran right by Demichelis, picked him clean, and scored on a point-blank shot behind the Argentine defense. Other than that, the first half was all Argentina, with Messi creating time and time again. Argentina continued to dominate after the half, scoring on another brilliant run and shot by Messi that deflected to Higuain, all alone on the back side. For a team playing a defensive formation, South Korea repeatedly made huge defensive failures. Higuain completed his hat trick on a header when he was again left alone on the back post. Perhaps Maradona knows what he’s doing after all, as his decision to keep Higuain in the starting line-up over Milito and his reliance on Messi to create paid off big. Argentina has virtually clinched their spot in the 2nd round of the tournament. South Korea’s defense was horrid. Despite the defensive formation, Argentina repeatedly had unmarked players in the box and forced South Korean goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong to make numerous saves. Jung actually played quite well and kept his team in the game, but the repeated defensive lapses did him in. South Korea is still in a good position to advance however if they can beat Nigeria in their final group fixture.
Greece 2-1 Nigeria: In the early going, this was an evenly matched game with both teams creating opportunities, but neither got off good shots, except for a surprise midfield shot from Kostas Katsouranis that did not catch Nigerian goalie Vincent Enyeama napping. An early simple free kick into the box by Nigerian striker Kalu Uche scored because Greek goalie Alexandros Tzorvas fell to his right expecting a header that never came. Nigeria’s day virtually came to an end 15 minutes later when midfielder Sani Kaita is red-carded for kicking a Greek player in retaliation to a minor push. Even though he barely made contact, it was a stupid emotional act by Kaita and he was rightly sent from the pitch. Greek manager Otto Rehhagel immediately went for it sending another striker on the field in place of a defender. The rest of the game was all Greece, taking an astounding 27 shots, including 11 on goal. Enyeama was nearly up to the task making 9 saves, but a shot by Greek striker Dimitrios Salpingdis deflected off a defender and into the goal shortly before halftime, tying the game. Despite being a man down, the Super Eagles nearly got a second goal, but striker Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi missed wide right on an open goal after a shot deflected to him off of Tzorvas. Greece finally scored the winner when Vasilis Torosidis converted a shot that deflected off Enyeama. The Greeks should have scored several more goals but for the brilliance of Enyeama, who was praised by Lionel Messi after the first fixture against Argentina. While not technically eliminated, the Super Eagles don’t stand much chance of advancement. Despite the win, the Greeks own chance for advancement will depend on how they do against the dominant Argentine team in the next fixture.