This team has the Makings of a Dream, but…

U23 EaglesThe Nigeria U23 team cruised to a 5-0 defeat of their Sudanese counterparts in Asaba, Delta State on Tuesday and secured their place at the Africa U23 Championship holding in Egypt later this year. While the victory was sweet – the team has now scored nine goals in two outings at home – there are good and not-so-good sides to the tale…

Credit to the technical team of the side led by Imama Amakapabo; the U23 side oozed class – a confident display highlighted by crisp passes, well taken goals, and an arrogant swagger that is usually associated with the Golden Eaglets (yep, multiple FIFA U17 World Cups means they’ve earned that moniker) says that this team may just become the next darlings of an adoring Nigerian football audience. But there are areas which the technical team will need to pay attention to, before the team can hope to conquer Africa in November, and go on to attempt another Olympic Gold Medal win in Japan.

First, the above description of the team matched their performance in the first half, and some parts of the second, sandwiched between the early parts of the second half and late on in the same period. In those two parts of the game (early in the second half and late on), the team showed some flashes that reeked lack of (team) discipline. First, with three goals in the kitty, and then with five, it became an every-man-for-himself kind of game as the players went in search of individual glory. Muyiwa Olabiran, the tricky winger who had been a glorious provider, wanted to grab a goal for himself; Ndifreke Effiong, who had netted a brace, wanted a hat trick. They both ignored team (and technical football ethics) and went for glory instead of laying the ball off for a player better placed to score. Azubuike Okechukwu also let one fly from distance late in the game. Thankfully, they corrected the lapse of the first part and added two more goals, before they reverted to form after.

The needless response to aggravation by Kelechi Nwakali is also a worry. The former Arsenal starlet is talented no doubt, but he sometimes appears to have a chip on his shoulder. That incident, on a lot of other occasions, could mean the team would have continued the game a man short. Nwakali will need to grow, and channel his energy into controlling those flashes of petulance. The team will not see the fruition of a dream if their rhythm is disrupted in a crucial game by an eviction; and there will be many more feisty games in the days ahead.

For this team to make a global impact, they first have to solve an African puzzle. The challenge Amakapabor and his crew will likely face in Egypt is: will the bulk of this team be available for selection? The U23 AFCON holds from November 8-22, when most of the leagues in Europe will be in full swing; FIFA is not likely to approve or sanction a request for platers’ release; will the team still have the quality to conquer Africa?

That said, the team purrs when the players are on the same page, and that is a major cause for celebrations: to play such attractive football on a turf as bumpy as the Stephen Keshi stadium is no mean feat.

Then, the central defensive pair of Anthony Izuchukwu and Olisah Ndah almost didn’t put a foot wrong; they looked really good against a thoroughly brow-beat Sudanese side. It will be good to see them against better opposition. Still, it was a joy to see them produce an assured display.

The U23 Team have played well so far, but to become the next authentic Dream Team,  they will need to take it up a notch. 

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