The Super Eagles kicked off their 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with a slim 1-0 win over Burundi on Saturday, June 22.
It was far from the stroll in the park that many expected for the Super Eagles as Burundi proved to be hard to crack before Odion Ighalo scored the game’s only goal just four minutes after coming on.
Ighalo sends a message
Ighalo’s goal was a message to Gernot Rohr after the Super Eagles boss left the striker on the bench from the start.
The striker has been Super Eagles undisputed first-choice striker for more than a year so it was surprising to see newcomer Paul Onuachu in the starting XI.
Onuachu wasn’t bad either, his hold up play was good and he posed a physical nuisance to the Burundi defence but he had two half chances which he couldn’t convert.
It was also not his fault that the Super Eagles couldn’t get it right in the final third when he was on the pitch. Unlike Ighalo who came on after his teammates got more fluidity and got more control of the game.
He was quick to pounce on a back-heel pass from Ola Aina to calmly finish past the Burundi goalkeeper for Nigeria’s only goal. It was a goal that delivered a message to Rohr and other critics.
Iwobi the No. 10
One of the changes that gave the Super Eagles more momentum in the second half was Alex Iwobi’s shift to the centre to take up the No. 10 role.
With Iwobi in the middle, the Super Eagles had pace and dynamism in the middle. He started the move for Super Eagles goal, driving the ball forward before playing a pass to Aina who delivered the assist.
Iwobi’s future lies in the No. 10 role, he is built for it, his twinkle toes and dynamism in the middle is an asset for the Super Eagles and the minutes he spent in that role on Saturday night should be enough to convince Rohr.
Mikel is not a No 10
Rohr doesn’t need convincing that Iwobi can thrive in the No 10 role, he has seen the 23-year-old play in that position for most of AFCON 2019 qualifiers. It’s the return of his skipper Mikel Obi that left Rohr’s hands tied.
In an attempt to please everyone, Mikel was among the starting XI but it was even more bemusing that the veteran midfielder was given the No. 10 role. He did not come up to scratch in that role bringing up the conversation that happened after Nigeria’s 2-0 loss to Croatia in their first game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Mikel’s days as a No 10 are long gone. He simply does not possess the dynamism, vim and vigour to play as an attacking midfielder, even so behind Oghenekaro Etebo who has the skill set to be more of a threat in that position.
Aina steps up
Since he switched his allegiance from England to Nigeria, Aina has been just another player in the Super Eagles without any standout performance. He was hence dropped from the squad on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup but he has since come in leaps and bounds, impressing on a loan stint with Torino and getting on the plane to Egypt with the Super Eagles.
He was massive in the game against Burundi, defending robustly and also attacking well from deep. He was responsible for the most defining moment of the game, setting up Ighalo with a lovely backheel.
Omeruo/Ekong partnership still suspect
Rohr went for form instead of familiarity as he left Leon Balogun on the bench for the central defensive partnership of Kenneth Omeruo and William Troost-Ekong.
It was rewarding for Omeruo who has taken his rightful place in the Super Eagles after a fine season in Spain with Leganess and Ekong, who continued with his growth with a solid season with Udinese.
The partnership, despite how it looked on paper, had its problems. They stayed too far from each other often times, allowing the Burundians some sniff at goal.