NEWS DIGEST – Nigeria parades arguably the strongest squad in the ongoing African Cup of Nations in Egypt and has rightly been tipped as one of the favourites to win African football’s biggest prize. However, there is an achilles heel within the Eagles’ ranks that threatens to hamper the team’s assault on a fourth AFCON title: the goalkeeping position.
Knockout ties are characterized by fine margins and zero second chances. Sandwiched between these key indices is the goalkeeping department where a team’s labour for 90 minutes – or 120 as the case may be – can be undone by a two-second lapse from the goalkeeper.
A goalkeeper is the soul of a football team. The messiah of the rearguard. Capable of opening and closing the floodgates at will and capable of single-handedly deciding the outcome of a football match.
A six foot figure flung into a 24-feet wide, 8-feet high territory to prevent an 8-inch ball from finding its way into the guarded area, the goalkeeping job is one of the most difficult on earth. In the most exposed and most lonely position on the pitch, goalkeepers are always under the microscope; intensely under fire.
Unlike a striker who can miss several gold-plated chances and heaven wont fall, a single mistake from a goalkeeper can throw millions of people into misery.
With these indices in mind and the peculiarity of the Super Eagles’ problem, we need not be told where to sprinkle the holy water.
Step forward, Gernot Rohr. As the custodian of Nigeria’s national team, the German assumes full responsibility for everything that happens on the pitch and that includes finding a befitting successor to Vincent Enyeama who called time on his illustrious international career in 2015.
It has been three years since Rohr’s installation in the Super Eagles driving seat and to a large extent, he has improved the team. It is rather worrying however that a goalkeeper of Daniel Akpeyi’s calibre (no disrespect intended) is being trusted with the gloves in a major international tournament.
A question of whether there aren’t younger and more talented goalies that can be unearthed from the various clubs around the world sprayed with Nigerian talent is a matter for another day. In isolation, here is a certainty: anything less than gold for the Super Eagles in the ongoing Nations Cup will be deemed as yet another failure. And with the notoriously unforgiving nature of the power-brokers of Nigerian Football Federation, if such happens, there is no guaranty that Rohr will be forgiven this time around as he would be expected to pay for his sins with the keys to his office.
When Vincent Enyeama retired abruptly in 2015, his place was taken by Carl Ikeme. Less than two years later, Ikeme called time on his career after being diagnosed with Leukemia. Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa jostled briefly for the spot before it was eventually claimed by outsider Francis Uzoho.
Uzoho played all matches in Nigeria’s 2018 World Cup campaign in Russia and performed admirably. He retured from the tournament with an enhanced reputation and was seen as the great new hope of Nigeria’s goalkeeping future. However, a single innocuous mistake against Seychelles in the 2019 AFCON final qualifying game in March prompted Rohr to drop the 20-year-old and hand over the gloves to Akpeyi. Rohr’s decision was quick, ruthless and not thoroughly thought. You don’t build the confidence of a young goalkeeper by banishing him after an error. Besides, chopping and changing is never good for the goalkeeping position.
Akpeyi was given the nod to start in goal for Nigeria’s AFCON opening game against Burundi. A smart save to deny Cedric Amissi’s point blank volley from close range in the 14th minute was followed up by two errors that could easily lead to goals on another day. He was caught napping in the 19th minute as he allowed a back pass run through his legs, but fortunately for a corner. Had the pass been on target, we would be talking of one of the worst goalkeeping errors ever seen on a continental stage. In the 78th minute, he made a mess of what was supposed to be a routine catch but was lucky there was no opponent to benefit from his gift.
Rohr kept faith in the Kaizer Chiefs shot-stopper for the second game against Guinea amidst serious concerns from observers. Though largely untested throughout the clash, Apkeyi made hard work of regulation saves and sometimes found it difficult in deciding whether to go for a punch or a catch. So in 180 minutes, he had done little to allay Nigerians’ fears about the safety of the goal.
Super Eagles were lucky in their first two games to have faced teams who weren’t willing – or able – to go for the throat. Burundi and Guinea barely threatened the backline so Rohr’s men were able to mask their inadequacies with two slender wins, while keeping clean sheets in the process. But when a reality check came knocking in the final group game against Madagascar, the floodgates opened.
On the evidence of the shameful defeat to the Barea, there is no doubt that the Eagles rearguard will be caught pants down by more potent teams in the business end of this tournament. An important attribute of good goalkeepers is the ability to make up for the failings of their defenders. But when the defenders – who themselves aren’t in high supply of confidence – are even more apprehensive of the man manning the goal, then the magnitude of the problem facing Nigeria becomes more obvious.
Goal droughts can be fixed by altering formations and making substitutions in a bid to add more bite in the final third. But so sensitive is the goalkeeping department that it does not easily lend itself to quick fixes, especially during a tournament. The solution to Nigeria’s goalkeeping limbo can definitely not be found in Egypt. This doesn’t sound particularly worrisome but here’s some noise: even if a stop-gap measure is brought to the fore, an improvement will still be off the cards. Francis Uzoho is passing through the most difficult period of his international career after being relegated from World Cup first choice to Nations Cup third choice and Ikechukwu Ezenwa – as we have seen on a good number of occasions in the past – is no significant upgrade on Daniel Akpeyi.
In the end, it might be a single error in the goalkeeping department that sends Nigeria packing from a competition they expected to win. A stab in the front from a familiar foe.