Balance and pragmatism give Nigeria cause for optimism at last

Steve Haag

Nigeria's qualification for the final of the Africa Cup of Nations has been achieved through simple, but nonetheless brave means.

The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations may be remembered positively for the remarkable runs of Burkina Faso and Cape Verde, but there is no escaping the fact that it has been a tournament sadly blighted by a lack of technical quality. In part, this is down to the fact that some of the top teams have had an unusually high number of big names absent from the tournament as coaches have sought to impose ruthless discipline and crack down on any negative influences.

Clearly, the moves have not been entirely effective - Ghana, already having to cope with the absence of Michael Essien, have struggled without the creativity provided by André Ayew and Kevin-Prince Boateng. Meanwhile, Algeria have badly missed the in-form Rafik Djebbour, and the Ivory Coast could have done with the option of Seydou Doumbia. Nigeria have joined in with this policy, but it has not hindered them.

While Nigeria's two main omissions, Shola Ameobi and Peter Odemwingie, are of far less importance - neither are even certain starters, let alone key players, with the Super Eagles never having suffered for lack of forwards - it should not be forgotten that one player who was set to join them in exile was John Obi Mikel. Eventually, the Chelsea midfielder was allowed back into the team. We cannot know if it was down to a difference in attitude, or a simple dose of realpolitik, taking the pragmatic view that Nigeria have plenty of alternatives to Ameobi and Odemwingie but are desperately lacking in midfielders capable of controlling a game, but either way it has been the correct decision.

Mikel has excelled for Nigeria, giving performances which probably rank him as the player of the tournament so far. It's easy to forget how much his role has changed since his move to Chelsea - when a youngster, he was regarded as a flair player, bringing pace, creativity and electric dribbling to midfield. Predictably, the phrase "new Jay-Jay Okocha" was bandied about. Since moving to Chelsea, however, his midfield role was dramatically reduced, made simpler and duller, although it is noteworthy that at Stamford Bridge, regardless of whichever patsy was sat in the dugout that week, Mikel was one of the first names on the teamsheet.

For Nigeria however, Mikel has been given a more expressive role, in which he and his team have flourished. It is not quite the position he was talked up in during his youth, but as a classic deep-lying playmaker, producing the sort of passes about which the word "Pirloesque" would not be hyperbole. It seems to be the perfect role for him, aided in a fluid midfield formation with Ogenyi Onazi instead being the main enforcer, and Sunday Mba providing forays from deep but also getting behind the ball. The result is that Mikel can find space to manifest himself when possession is regained, and make the best use of his passing ability.

He has been joined in his excellent performances by his Chelsea teammate Victor Moses, the second key piece of Nigeria's puzzle. The winger has provided a remarkable all-round game which provides the same two assets as Mikel, in a very different way - his pace, movement and directness can easily cut through exposed teams on the counter, and he also has the ability to break down a deep-lying defence. Both were on display in Nigeria's 4-1 destruction of Mali, the former for the opening goal and the latter for the third. It is no coincidence that the team's performances have improved along with his own.

In short, Nigeria have profited from an injection of technical quality into their side which has been lacking in the team's previous failures. Combined with a remarkable balance, and a rotation of forwards rather than an attempt to cram their best eleven players into the starting eleven without thought for form or structure, it's given Nigeria a solid base from which they have built on, improving as they have progessed through the tournament.

For contrast to this sensible approach, you need only look at two of their rivals: Ghana have suffered throughout the tournament from a shortage of sources of goals, both in finishing and creating. Their over-dependency on Asamoah Gyan was finally showed up against Burkina Faso, when the star who was so crucial to them in 2010 appeared to finally buckle under the pressure, spurning a hatful of chances as the opportunity to progress passed them by.

In appeasing their technical players, however, Nigeria would appear to have something in common with their fellow perennial underachievers, Ivory Coast. With a frontline of Didier Drogba, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, and Yaya Toure in midfield, they can't exactly be accused of lacking technical ability. Yet when they came up against Nigeria, they were disrupted and frustrated.

Yaya Toure may have excelled since being pushed further forwards at Manchester City, but because he is so phenomenally good at what he does, his limitations have been overlooked. He is a fine passer of the ball, but he lacks intricacy - when he gets into forward positions, it's his physicality and power that provides the danger. He can certainly pick a pass, but he is another who does so when sitting deep and unmolested. With Gervinho and Kalou playing more limited roles, and that archetypal battering ram, Drogba left alone up front, there was simply too much being asked of him. In a forward position, he had no time or space to supply his wingers. Against the deep-lying discipline of Mikel and Onazi, his surging runs were ineffective, and the Ivory Coast with them.

It's all relatively simple stuff, but Stephen Keshi's bravery in resisting the temptation to cram every decent attacker he possesses into the lineup and making allowances for their key players has left Nigeria clear favourites to win a trophy they haven't had success in for almost 20 years. That is to say nothing of his surprising decision to install the domestically-based Sunday Mba and Godfrey Oboabona as key members of his team - initially ridiculed as a parochial concession but looking like a masterstroke as the tournament wears on. Their reputation as a sort of West African Spurs may precede them, but in those two decades, better squads than this one have come and gone. They wouldn't have been worthier winners.

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