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John Obi Mikel
John Obi Mikel

Nigeria opened their 2019 African Nations Cup qualifying in disastrous fashion on Saturday night when they lost at home.

What's worse is that they suffered the defeat to South Africa, a team they had never lost to in half-a-century of competitive football between the two countries.

The defeat is a body blow to Nigeria's qualification hopes, but not a fatal one. When they lost to Congo in 2015, the Super Eagles still had a chance of qualifying right up until the last day, and would have done so with a win over Bafana Bafana at home. It is the same now.

Here are our five takeaways from the match.

EXPERIENCE NEEDED

Much has been made of Gernot Rohr's young squad, and that is by no means a bad thing. A squad with an average age of around 23 is great to have, especially for the long-term health and stability of the national team.

However, youth must have some age and experience to guide them and, on Saturday, Nigeria lacked both.

Elderson Echiejile and Ogenyi Onazi were the two oldest players in the team. Echiejile has been in and out of the national team, and Onazi is only 24, with not enough caps under his belt. Neither provided the leadership a game of that nature was crying out for. Awaziem is a young centre-back with great potential, but his inexperience showed in key situations.

In midfield, the team needed a calm head to offer direction and find solutions to South Africa's play. They did not have it.

That lack of organisational discipline in midfield led to the second goal. Two players should have taken responsibility for picking up Percy Tau when Nigeria attacked during that free-kick. Unfortunately one was too far in front, and the other was too far wide rather than stick by the man. Once the ball broke, neither was close enough.

Hopefully, the return of John Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and Carl Ikeme will change things.

Nigeria goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi.
Nigeria goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi.

RESOLVE GOALKEEPING ISSUES, ENYEAMA MUST COME BACK

First of all, Daniel Akpeyi should not take all of the responsibility for the two goals. His defence let him down, with organisational breakdowns leading to both the first and second goals. But the reason he picks up the bulk of the blame is that it is in moments like those that a truly quality goalkeeper steps up to prove himself.

For the first goal, Rantie was all alone after Ogenyi Onazi failed to stop a cross and Chidozie Awaziem misjudged his defensive header.

A better goalkeeper would have been quick to read the danger and attack the ball. Instead, Akpeyi stayed rooted to his line. Once Rantie made a connection with the ball, it was too late.

For the second, he again failed to read the danger, then made the wrong decision when he came face to face with Percy Tau. If he stood his ground, he would have been first to the ball when the striker played it around him. Instead, he went down trying too early.

Gernot Rohr needs to resolve the goalkeeping situation and fast. Reports from within the camp suggest that Akpeyi is done. Carl Ikeme is expected to return ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Cameroon. But with his unfortunate injury record, that is not a given.

Dele Alampasu is a talented young goalkeeper, but as Saturday's game showed, experience is required in key areas. Ikechukwu Ezenwa could be a good option, but he is not the perfect option.

Getting Vincent Enyeama back to the national team must now be a priority. Rohr has spoken to him, and even visited him in France. It is time to stress on him the importance of returning to the national side. His quality and experience will be desperately needed if Nigeria are to qualify for the World Cup.

HEADS MUST ROLL FOR BALL FIASCO

Many were surprised to see 'RSA' inked on the match balls. The reason being that Nigeria did not have the new CAF balls because their consignment has been stuck at the ports since January without being cleared.

As a result, the game was played with the match balls borrowed from the South African team. The Super Eagles only got to touch those balls during the warm-ups!

If the NFF are serious, they must take action on this ball snafu. Whoever is responsible for not getting those balls out must be take responsibility and either resign or be fired. There is no other solution.

Kelechi Iheanacho of Nigeria is boxed out by South African defenders.
Kelechi Iheanacho of Nigeria is boxed out by South African defenders.

IHEANACHO IS NOT A TARGET MAN

Prior to this game, Kelechi Iheanacho had scored eight goals in 10 internationals, but South Africa's tactics meant he was not only closed down quickly, but mostly isolated for the majority of the game. Which is where the strength and hold up play of experienced strikers like Odion Ighalo and Brown Ideye would have been handy.

Iheanacho did not win a single aerial challenge in or around the area. Neither did anyone else around him.

The team needed a change in tactics to add a second striker in. Rohr was slow to react, but eventually did with the introduction of Victor Osimhen and Kayode Olanrewaju. But by then it was almost too late, and although the attack perked up a bit after, they could not find the breakthrough and the all-out attack opened up space at the back for Bafana to exploit.

Rohr talked about trying out both 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations during the team's training in France. He should have switched much earlier.

SETBACK NOT DEATH SENTENCE

There is no sugar coating this - losing at home is a disaster. It should not happen, and all of the administrators in the NFF, the team officials and the players must take responsibility. They let themselves down and they let the country down.

But the game is in the past. Short of inventing a time machine and going back to replay the game, there is nothing to be done about it. What they can do something about though, is the next game against Cameroon in August/September, and the remaining five qualifiers next year.

There are six World Cup qualifying points on offer in September, and 15 African Nations Cup points still to play for next year.

As the 2015 qualifiers showed, an opening day loss is a body wound, not a fatal blow. Winning a minimum of four and maximum of all five remaining games still gets Nigeria to the Nations Cup, either as one of three best losers, or as group winners.

Make no mistake, this team - with the addition of some or all of the missing players - are capable of winning all of those games, including the return fixture in South Africa. But only if the team pick themselves up, learn the lessons from this setback and use it as a springboard to do better.

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