17 January 2004

Nigeria: Defensive Frailty May Not Cost Nigeria

Nigeria could be done in by poor defensive abilities at the 24th African Cup of Nations starting in Tunisia in a week's time. Triumph in the same country exactly ten years ago plus the good form of a number of superstars have conspired to raise the expectations of Nigerians. But while the attack is not too bad and the midfield looks okay, the defence of the Super Eagles does not inspire confidence.

Confirmation early in the week that World Cup bulwark, Taribo West, would miss the finals has thrown the Nigerian team into real panic, and even Coach Christian Chukwu would admit that there is so much to fear at the rear.

West is the ultimate organizer and his experience and level of exposure over the last decade was sure to help the squad beat some difficult moments as happened at the World Cup in Japan in 2002. But the one they call 'Pastor' copped a serious injury in training and would not be at what was supposed to be his third Nations Cup.

West played with the team that won silver at the 2000 edition and was in the thick of things when the Super Eagles won bronze in Mali two years ago. He also won Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996 and played in two World Cup finals with Nigeria.

Although he left the 2002 World Cup in acrimony with the authorities, his recent good form with Partizan Belgrade in Serbia and Montenegro, and in the UEFA Champions League, compelled Coach Chukwu to extend an invitation to the controversial stopper.

But in Faro, where the team has been training since late December, Taribo West was knocked and cannot now go to the finals in Tunisia.

"This is real bad news. We needed West so much at the back but we now have to do without him", said a member of the technical crew.

Nigeria play against former winners Morocco and South Africa, and ambitious debutantes Benin Republic at the tournament billed for January 24 , February 14, and need her best materials to confront determined opposition.

With West out, Chukwu would probably have to move the versatile Joseph Yobo to the middle of the defence and try out the Macclesfield of England boy, George Abbey, at right back. A number of experts have also called on Chukwu to try out Chelsea's Celestine Babayaro, a regular left back, at the right side of defence.

Poor defending cost Nigeria a place in the Final at the 2002 championship, just as it cost the team the trophy when they played against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in Abidjan in 1984.

Muda Lawal gave the team a 10th minute lead in that match but the defence was broached three times thereafter and Cameroon won their first title.

Bookmakers have tipped Nigeria, Senegal and four-time champions Cameroon and Egypt as the teams likely to make the semi finals in Tunisia. But a team deficient in any department of the game may find it hard going at the three-week, 16-nation championship.

Other defenders in the Nigerian camp in Faro are Gabriel Melkam of Hansa Rostock of Germany; Joseph Enarkahire of Standard Liege of Belgium; George Abbey of Macclesfield of England; Ifeanyi Udeze of PAOK Salonica of Greece; Bob Osim of home club, Nationale; Romanus Orjinta of African champions, Enyimba; Seyi Olajengbesi of Julius Berger of Lagos; Isaac Okoronkwo of Wolves of England and Celestine Babayaro.

But it is doubtful if any of them can fill in well at the right back if Yobo has to be deployed to play at the central. It also means that Nigeria will be going to the Nations Cup with only short defenders. The only imposing fellow, Seyi Olajengbesi, may not even be in the Final 22.

The midfield looks okay with Skipper Jay-Jay Okocha, Seyi Olofinjana, John Utaka, Ifeanyi Ekwueme, Pius Ikedia and Osaze Odemwigie, while the attacking lot of Julius Aghahowa, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Nwankwo Kanu, Victor Agali, and Chukwudi Nworgu can be relied on to deliver.

But, can a team go very far if it can only score goals and not stop them?

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