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As Eagles Fly to Russia…

For the first time in many years, the nation's senior male national team, the Super Eagles, qualified for a major competition well ahead of time without recourse by millions of their soccer crazy fans to their calculators.
On Saturday, October 7, inside the expansive bowl of Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo, the Super Eagles defeated their Zambian opponents 1-0, to secure a berth in next year's World Cup in Russia.
The victory meant that Nigeria will be going into the last match away to Algeria with a comfortable six-point cushion ahead of their closest rivals, Zambia, who have 7 points to Nigeria's 13.
Algeria, Nigeria's next and final opponents, are already out and are unlikely to field their strongest squad.
Nigeria's easy qualification, no doubt, came as a huge surprise to soccer pundits, given that the group was dubbed a group of death. This dubbing was not for nothing. The group has reigning African champions, Cameroon; a top ranking nation on FIFA rating, Algeria; and Zambia, who won the Nation's Cup in 2012.
But Nigeria qualified with relative ease, beating Zambia home and away (2-1 and 1-0); beating Cameroon 4-0 in Nigeria and drawing 1-1 in Younde; while beating Algeria 3-1 in Nigeria.
Their qualification was all the more significant being that only one team would qualify from the group. Now, as the team prepares to face Algeria in a meaningless last match, attention will be focusing on how to do well at the main event next year in Russia. This will be Nigeria's sixth appearance at the World Cup.
In previous outings, Nigeria have managed to reach the second round three times in 1994, 1998 and 2014. The quarter final has continued to elude Nigeria, even though Senegal and Cameroon have done so.
Granted that winning the World Cup will be a tall order for Nigeria, the fans at least expect them to perform well by making it to the quarter final. Presently, Nigeria is blessed with a crop of young, determined players with reasonable experience. Pundits believe that qualification for the World Cup will be good for the experience and careers of the players.
Indeed, not a few Nigerians believe that this team is one that can mature into the national team of their dreams. With the likes of Mikel Obi, Ogenyi Onazi, Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and Wilfred Ndidi, among others, the team has a nice blend of experience, skill, pace and guile. The World Cup in Russia will therefore serve as a springboard to launch the players to the next level.
However, pundits have identified certain areas in the team that need fine tuning in order to make them better.
Rev Fr Obinna Dike, a coach and referee, believes that the coach, Gernot Rohr, has done well by imbibing harmony among the new and old players, as well as between the administrators; something, he said, helped in securing a World Cup berth.
However, he believes that it is not yet uhuru for the team, which, he says, needs consolidation and will do well to avoid external distraction.
In his words, 'The team must be consolidated to avoid much external distraction. Already, feelers are that some people are already drawing their own list of players to sneak to Russia. This had happened many times in past World Cups.'
Fr Dike hails the defence as having a 100% commitment and for showing promise. However, he observes that the same defence has been caught flat footed on a number of occasions, pointing out that in the World Cup proper, such mistakes will be easily punished.
According to him, the centre halves are pro-offensive in modern football by walking the ball, rather than ballooning to the opponent.
'Zambia were better in this regard. The left back must be greater than Echiejile,' he says.
In the midfield, Fr Dike believes that Onazi needs a real challenger and back up to engage the team's fast attackers appropriately. 'Agu is a time bomb waiting to happen. A midfield with a good bit of Iwobi-like switch will force open the opposition. Mikel too must work on his stamina to last 90 minutes,' he said.
As for the attack, he believes that it is pacy but guilty of hastily giving the ball away. He wants this to be worked on by the technical crew before the World Cup.
For Tony Nwafor Okafor, a journalist with the Punch Newspapers, the team's left full back needs urgent attention. Echiejille, he says, has not proved himself there.
'I remember the days of Celestine Babayaro on that wing. Besides, it's like there is no replacement for Echiejile on that wing in case of injury or other eventualities. The guy that replaced him during the Zambian encounter in Akwa Ibom, looked like a natural right footer,' Okafor observes.
He wants the technical crew to sharpen the attack, pointing out that the World Cup is not a place the ball is rolled to the net.
'We need strikers who can take shots from all flanks. The midfield is good when Mikel Obi is on duty. In the absence of Mikel Obi, our midfield quickly collapses. We need to look for somebody who can hold our mid field in the absence of John Mikel Obi. This is necessary because I don't see Mikel Obi lasting 90 minutes in a World Cup encounter. He is getting weaker by the day.
'The Mikel Agu that relieved the older Mikel has not demonstrated any confidence each time duty called for him to act.
'I will also add that we are missing Carl Ikeme. The 4-1 our first goalkeeper, Ezenwa, suffered during the recent WAFU finals against Ghana exposed his weaknesses. Goalkeeper trainers should drill him, if we can't get a better shot stopper. Added to this, is that Ezenwa needs a sports psychologist around him. The way I perceive him, I think he looks jittery and nervous most times; maybe as a result of the complex of being a home based player.
'Generally, we need a team that has character, strength, speed and coherence,' Okafor submits.
For Nwanosike Onu, a reporter for The Nation Newspaper, the team is not defensively water tight.
'The only department that is untouchable for now, is the midfield. Our attack needs sharp shooters in the mould of the late Yekini. Also, the goal keeping area needs someone like Enyeama. For now, we are lacking a solid keeper.
'The left full back is empty; on the right, Aina and Shehu are okay. Central defence needs one good back up
'In the attack, Onyekwuru, Sadiq Umar and Ideye, should be included in the squad,' Onu says.
He believes that with some of these additions, the Super Eagles will go far in the World Cup
Given that the time for the mundial is less than a year from now, the team needs to play top notch friendly matches to build cohesion and experience. Being that modern football has no minnows again, who know? The Super Eagles may spring surprises as long as merit is observed.
No doubt, Nigerians will be eagerly waiting to see whether the current team can finally break the quarter final jinx.


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