COMMENT

Pressure now on Super Eagles as Eguavoen's midfield blunder leaves Jollof Derby in the balance

The Nigeria head coach violated the only absolutely inviolate rule of playing a crunch away tie, and while it is a relief that the tie is still in the balance, it is very much advantage Ghana.

Joe Aribo contests the ball with Gideon Mensah (IMAGO/Tobi Adepoju/Shengolpixs)

If the Super Eagles were under any illusions as to the heft of the task at hand on Friday night, it was doubtless quickly dispelled when they stepped into the madness at the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi.

It can be easy sometimes to forget just how young and relatively inexperienced a lot of this squad is, but even the longest in the tooth would have found the heat and the sizzle to be just a bit much. On that front, at least, Ghana's job was partway done.

It is very much the right – the prerogative even – of the weak(er) to make the atmosphere froth and thunder, health and safety standards be damned. In the face of storied rivalry, stadium capacities are little more than a suggestion, one might say. Only by increasing the number of variables (read: spectators) could the Black Stars hope to have a chance, and it behoved their more illustrious opponent to tune out the din and focus on exerting their own qualitative superiority.

Easier said than done in even the best of circumstances, but then again nothing good comes easy. Certainly not a place at the World Cup, and apparently not the discretion to understand the tactical and emotional requirements of a qualifier on enemy turf.

Sure enough, the loss of Wilfred Ndidi was always going to be keenly felt, being the bulwark that he is in the middle of the park. However, not even in his presence would it have been acceptable to field a midfield pairing in a game of this magnitude; the most unlearned in the mechanisms of football would have understood implicitly that no 1:1 replacement was going to cut it, whether structurally or technically. A third midfielder was a matter of necessity.

There is no universal tome of footballing imperatives, but if there was, it would have 'do not concede the midfield' as a quite prominent entry in the chapter on 'How To Approach The Away Leg of a Two-legged Knockout Tie'.

Augustine Eguavoen, however, had other ideas. After all, not for nothing is he a stated admirer of Pep Guardiola, the great tactical iconoclast of the age. However, if the Catalan maverick can occasionally be accused of overthinking, his Nigerian acolyte has so far betrayed the opposite inclination in his brief tenure as Super Eagles head coach.

On Friday, the sum of his input – the lesson he appears to have gleaned from the disappointment of defeat at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the epiphany that had come to him in the throes of reflection – was to have Samuel Chukwueze and Moses Simon occasionally interchange positions. This, rather amusingly, had the effect of making neither effective; in Garoua the Super Eagles had at least flown on one wing, in Kumasi they were completely earthbound.

Everything else stayed the same, right down to isolation of the centre-forward – Victor Osimhen in this case, rather than Taiwo Awoniyi – and the vacation of the centre of the pitch in favour of the wide areas. The difference was that, whereas in Cameroon Ndidi was there to just barely make it all fit together with some semblance of logic (and even then only for three matches), in Ghana there was no getting away from the sheer illogic of it all.

With the best will in the world, Innocent Bonke is only an acceptable facsimile of the Leicester sentinel if one is slightly soused, and even then he only offers a fraction of the utility. Not his fault, really, and perhaps his showing was the biggest proof of the unworkability of a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 structure that so cleanly splits central midfield responsibilities between defensive and attacking, with little though to support and control functionality.

The result was as painful in its predictability as it had been in the defeat to Tunisia, albeit against a Black Stars team still in search of cutting edge. In the same vein as against the Carthage Eagles, Eguavoen’s side found it a lot harder to pressure a situational back three in build-up, and the extra man in midfield for Ghana gave them control in that zone. It really came down to the relative kindness of the swerve at the Baba Yara, as well as a belated – if perhaps forced – rejig later in the game.

In that light, it is no surprise then that the Super Eagles gaffer was pleased enough to exit the premises with the tie still very much in the balance, broadly speaking. He must hold no illusions, however: the advantage has very clearly swung the way of the adversary. Not only will every mistake made in Abuja have potentially ruinous repercussions, but he will need to carefully balance that risk against the onus to win. For Ghana, a draw will do just nicely.

Worryingly though, the one thing Eguavoen has shown himself incapable of grasping so far is nuance.

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