Nigeria Camp Focus – Altitude Sickness Costs Nigeria

Dickson Etuhu spoke out in the Nigeria Camp by criticising the country’s inadequate preparation before their 1-0 defeat to Argentina. Despite the fact that the match was played in Johannesburg, the team had trained in Durban until the Friday before the game, whereupon they travelled to Johannesburg. Etuhu argued that this gave the squad insufficient time to acclimatise to the altitude in which they would be playing.

The result was that the team spent the game chasing possession , having only 35 percent of possession in comparison to the 65 percent enjoyed by Argentina. Not having time to acclimatise exacerbated these problems, Etuhu said, because: “You take five or six steps, you feel like you’ve just done a whole lap.” Training in Durban was hardly the preparation needed to face such stars as Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Juan Sebastian Veron. Tactical preparations as well as physical preparations had therefore been hindered. Instead of being fit enough to challenge Argentina man for man, Etuhu felt that Nigeria’s inadequate preparation meant that they had to mark space rather than the man. Messi, Tevez et al. were able to terrorise the Nigerian defence as they were not put under sufficient pressure in possession. Little wonder that Nigeria were out gunned by 20 shots to 7, signifying the ease with which the Argentine attack was able to exploit the gaps left as the Nigeria struggled to acclimatise.

In spite of this, Etuhu did have words of praise for his Coach Lars Lagerback: “For the first time in a long time you could see that we had some sort of coaching.” Lagerback, he insinuated, had made the best of a bad deal, organising his team in spite of the poor conditions with which to prepare his team in. However, Lagerback himself remained disappointed by the nature of their defeat. In particular, the cause of Gabriel Heinze’s winning goal irked him. “We were sleeping on one of the corners and that was enough,” he said of the free run Heinze was given on the edge of the area to head uncontested into the top corner. The statistics tell their own story. Argentina’s 20 shots yielding the solitary goal speaks less of Lagerback’s tactical nous than it does of Vincent Enyeama’s heroics in the Nigerian goal. Time and again he thwarted Lionel Messi , two saves from curling Messi shots in the first half drawing particular praise. His performance (he was named the official man of the match) was enough to draw superlatives from the man he most frequently frustrated. “The goalkeeper was phenomenal,” said Messi, explaining why his Argentine team could not find the second goal which would have calmed their nerves.

Whilst Etuhu is critical of Nigeria’s preparation, Enyeama’s acrobatics in goal is not the only reason for optimism in the Nigerian ranks. For the first time in a long time, Etuhu believes that there is an organisation to Nigeria – a game plan and a sense of cohesion. As the game stretched, there were chances on the counter attack for Kalu Uche and Obafemi Martins. There is a belief in the squad that similar opportunities will open up for them against the SouthKorea and Greece, if they play in the same way and eradicate the type of mistake which led to the goal. Haruna Lukman too has been supportive of the influence of Lagerback during the tournament. “We gave a good account of ourselves and will now focus on our next game against Greece,” he said. For a team which has seemed at times notoriously disorganised at international tournaments, often to the detriment of the depth of natural talent contained within the squad, these are positive vibes indeed.

Indeed, for the rest of the squad it is now a case of looking forwards to the Greece game, rather than lingering on the problems of acclimatisation brought up by Etuhu. The reality is that Nigeria has lost a match they were expected to lose. There are two games remaining against weaker teams to put that right. These are the matches where Lagerback, initially installed as manager on a five month contract, will define his and Nigeria’s future. Two victories and a place in the last sixteen may persuade the Nigerian F.A. to hand him an extended contract. With his Coaching and organisation lauded by the squad, the feeling that he can do just that is optimistic.

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