The goalkeeping department is the most crucial arm of a football team. Sometimes the performance of a goalkeeper determines the fate of his team in crucial games because he is the last man on the pitch and any mistakes he makes often times lead to disastrous outcomes for his team.
At the UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, Jurgen Klopp and his men were doing alright until their goalkeeper, Loris Karius committed two howlers that changed the cause of the tie in Madrid’s favour. Any error by the goalkeeper cannot be corrected once the ball has hit the net. That is why teams pay much premium on the quality of the goalkeeper entrusted with the task of safeguarding their goalpost.
At the sudden retirement of former Nigeria captain, Vincent Enyeama from international football, Super Eagles’ fans were worried that the country would struggle to find a capable replacement for the three-time World Cup veteran. But such fears were dismissed by the emergence of Carl Ikeme, who not only proved that he was capable of doing the job, but also showed that if Enyeama had tarried, he would have consigned the former Enyimba captain to the bench.
However, while Nigerians were still salivating on the sterling performances of the Wolverhampton Wanderers’ man, the team was hit by the news that Ikeme would not play football again at least until after the World Cup. He was diagnosed of leukemia, which treatment would last more than six months.
The Eagles’ misfortune was highlighted by the lack of a ready substitute for Ikeme’s position. There were Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi and Dele Alampasu, but none of the trio had had a steady run in the team’s first 11 due to the presence of Enyeama and Ikeme.
Those fears seemed to have been justified by the nightmarish performances by Akpeyi in games against Algeria and South Africa in World Cup and African Nations Cup qualifiers respectively. That was about eight months ago.
With less than five days to the kick off of the World Cup, Nigerians seem to have overcome their fears over the capability of the last man in Super Eagles’ defence. This is mainly due to the performances of youngster, Francis Uzoho and Enyimba’s Ikechukwu Ezenwa in recent times.
In the absence of Ikeme, Ezenwa successfully manned Nigeria’s post in the matches against Cameroun, Zambia and Algeria as Nigeria strolled to its fifth World Cup qualification. But it appears that Coach Gernot Rohr has settled on Uzoho as his first choice goalkeeper.
The 19-year-old came on as a half-time substitute for his international debut in November, with Nigeria trailing Argentina 2-1, and produced an infallible performance as the Super Eagles rallied to win. The six feet five inches Deportivo La Coruna man, the youngest foreign goalkeeper in La Liga history, has started the Super Eagles’ last five matches, keeping a clean sheet against a Robert Lewandowski-spearheaded Poland.
Although he was criticised by some fans for Czech Republic’s goal in the recent international friendly in Austria, there is belief in some quarters that Rohr has built up the confidence of the youngster, who only had four first team appearances for his club on his debut season in the top flight.
Speaking on the quality of the goalkeepers at Rohr’s disposal, former international, Mike Onyemachara believes that Ezenwa and Uzoho are capable of doing the job in Russia, ‘especially if the defenders got their acts together.’
“Ikechukwu Ezenwa did very well during the qualifiers when all goalkeeping hopes were lost following Daniel Akpeyi’s erratic performances against South Africa in the AFCON 2019 qualifiers.
“He was fantastic in the World Cup qualifiers against Cameroun, Zambia and Algeria and even the CHAN before he got injured.
“If you have also followed the performances of Uzoho in the friendlies you would have seen a young man growing in confidence by the day.
“My concern is with the defenders. I hope they will be up to the challenge because the World Cup is different from the African qualifiers. They must be alert and mobile at all times because World Cup football is fast paced and demands fast thinking defenders to contain the attackers,” he said.
Chief Executive Officer of Match Room Sports and Media Ltd, Ojeikere Aikhoje, urges Nigerians to accept the fact that Rohr had accepted Uzoho as his first choice goalkeeper.
“Rohr’s body language suggests that he intends to use Uzoho as his first choice in goal by fielding him in all the friendly matches from the Poland game to that of Czech Republic.
“My concern is that he should have tested Ezenwa in the friendly matches but as the coach, he knows the reasons for opting for Uzoho instead of Ezenwa and other keepers,” he said.
Sports lawyer, Sabinus Ikewuaku believes Nigeria has overcome its goalkeeping worries, but he is not so sure of the defence. “The defence worries me because of the ease with which our opponents in the friendly games breached it.
“I hope Rohr has learnt good lessons from the matches because there are still grey areas in the team,” he said.
Former Super Eagles’ defender, Celestine Babayaro sees the Nigerian team as an emerging force, which could upset the formbooks in Russia. Babayaro is not worried by the absence of a big name goalkeeper in the Eagles’ fold and believes Nigeria ‘could go on to do exciting things’ at the Russia 2018 World Cup.
The Super Eagles will face Croatia, Iceland and Argentina in Group D of the World Cup in Russia.
However, contrary to verdicts that Rohr’s side would find it tough in the group, the former Chelsea defender is backing the side to pull through.
“I think the team will do OK because they have looked good in the friendlies,” Babayaro told Sky Sports.
“They were two down against Argentina but came back to win 4-2. Lionel Messi was not playing but Sergio Aguero was there. They also beat Poland in Poland with Robert Lewandowski playing.
“The team is looking good under new manager Gernot Rohr. He has done tremendously well with the players and I am really excited to see what they can do at the World Cup.
“Some people are calling it the group of death but I can see them coming through that which would be brilliant. If they can do that then they could go on to do exciting things.”
The three-time African champions best appearances at the global tournament were in 1994, 1998 and 2014 where they got to the round of 16; feats they would be eyeing to eclipse when the event starts on Thursday.
Nigeria will fly out of its Austria base today for Russia, where it will continue its final preparations for its first game of the competition against Croatia on Saturday.