Samuel Chukwueze and Ademola Lookman endured frustrating outings in Friday’s 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia, adding to Jose Peseiro’s worries with AFCON 2023 imminent.
There’s always a tendency for fans of the Super Eagles to be fatalistic, choosing to dwell on the team’s weaknesses instead of admiring their strengths.
You are likely to catch observers squabbling over one player or underperformers who should not be on the Nigeria side than seeing supporters extol the top-performing stars. It keeps fans grounded and feeds into the human inclination to expect the worst instead of hoping for the best.
Nigeria 2-2 Saudi Arabia
Friday’s 2-2 draw with Saudi Arabia brought mixed reactions; there was positivity and negativity. There was admiration over Victor Boniface slotting into the Super Eagles seamlessly. There was positivity over Wilfred Ndidi, whose dip in Leicester City’s Premier League demise was unmistakable.
The integration of Bruno Onyemaechi at left-back saw the Boavista defender impress on his second start for the Super Eagles, making him the frontrunner to start in that position at next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
However, the bugbears from the recent past reared its ugly head. Francis Uzoho, initially one of Jose Peseiro’s top performers, made a hash of Salman Al-Faraj’s free-kick on the hour for Saudi Arabia’s first goal.
The much-maligned goalkeeper could have saved the late leveller, but Calvin Bassey’s deflection spares the Omonia Nicosia shot-stopper from the criticism he may have otherwise faced had Mohamed Kanno scored directly.
It was disappointing for Uzoho, whose concentration in the opening 45 appeared solid for the only shot the Saudis had before the interlude. What happened after the break was disastrous for Uzoho, who reopened the never-ending conversation about his suitability for the no. 1 spot.
At centre-back, Semi Ajayi’s partnership with Calvin Bassey continues to creak, and Peseiro heads into the continental showpiece unsure over his first-choice goalkeeper and the central defensive pairing.
Perhaps more worrying is the form of Samuel Chukwueze and Ademola Lookman, who are not enjoying the finest starts to the season and produced suboptimal performances on Friday.
Ademola Lookman and Samuel Chukwueze’s struggles
Lookman and Chukwueze have had strange starts to the 2023-24 season in Serie A. The Atalanta forward is anticipated to have a more complicated second season in Bergamo than his debut season while the AC Milan wide attacker continues to find his feet.
The international break offered some reprieve for both players, especially after last weekend, where Gian Piero Gasperini criticised Lookman’s attitude to being left on the bench.
“The only bad note of the game today was Lookman’s attitude when he came on,” said the Atalanta boss after Sunday’s 3-2 defeat by Lazio.
“He didn’t seem as focused as his teammates, almost as if coming on as a substitute was something he didn’t feel was acceptable.”
As for Chukwueze, the inability to make his final 20 minutes in the Champions League matchday two at Borussia Dortmund count was still rewarded with a start in Milan’s game at Genoa. However, the former Villarreal man lasted 45 minutes and was hooked at the interlude, continuing a slow start since departing LaLiga for Italy’s top division.
Both players looked forward to Nigeria’s game with Roberto Mancini’s side, but it is unlikely to be the fillip to kickstart their respective seasons.
Lookman’s execution was unsatisfactory for much of the evening, frustrating with his final ball from open play and set-pieces, as the opening half closed out with an attempt off-target to miss the Super Eagles’ best chance of the first 45 minutes.
His teammate on the opposite flank probably endured a more torrid half. Chukwueze was guilty of several ball losses in the first half, poor decision-making and suboptimal execution.
The Milan attacker’s best moment of the opening half came when he found space in the right half-space to receive Semi Ajayi’s pass when the Green Falcons pressed high, helping the Super Eagles bypass the press and move the ball downfield. However, that move closed out with Chukwueze shooting harmlessly wide off-target when a promising opening presented itself.
No sooner after the second half commenced, the former Villarreal winger made another egregious decision in possession, resulting in a ball loss.
Nigeria won the ball high up the pitch, and the loose ball fell to Chukwueze, who had Boniface and Victor Osimhen as passing options either side. A reluctance to pass to either saw the move break down, with the Saudis regaining possession.
It was telling that neither Lookman nor Chukwueze completed any dribble, while Moses Simon, who replaced the Atalanta forward, was successful with three.
Kelechi Iheanacho replaced the Milan attacker, and it was telling that both contributed to Nigeria’s enhanced decisiveness in the game’s closing half-hour – Simon was involved in the Super Eagles’ leveller; Iheanacho scored what could have been a game-clinching 81st-minute goal to put the West African nation 2-1 up.
The Leicester City man has played commendably slightly out of position on the right – even if he is given the licence to drift into central areas, particularly carrying an influence in the right half-space – in the last two games, assisting one in the 6-0 demolition of Sao Tome & Principe and scoring against Saudi Arabia.
Be that as it may, the performances of Lookman and Chukwueze in Serie A mean Peseiro can currently rely on Simon and an out-of-position Iheanacho to come up trumps in the wide areas, causing fresh challenges with AFCON approaching.
The Super Eagles previously appeared well stocked in those positions and worrying over both flanks going into the continental showpiece is the last thing Peseiro needed. The Portuguese already has a full plate.