One of the great unanswered questions around the Super Eagles going into the CHAN was whether or not the team had enough goals in it. The opening game answered that emphatically in the affirmative, with the caveat that Niger are the weakest team in Group C; however, you can only beat what you are faced with.
In doing so though, it unearthed another question. Chisom Chikatara came off the bench and had such a profound effect on proceedings that, had he been so minded, he could have left the Kigali pitch with the tournament Golden Boot award. As it was, he settled for just the hat-trick on the night, and so raised the tantalizing question: does he start on Friday against Tunisia?
In general terms, it may seem superficial—selection headaches are surely preferable for a coach than scraping the back of the cupboard. It is a boon to be able to summon effectively a second wind from the bench; few teams in Rwanda have the luxury. Look a little deeper, and it is a decision that may have far-reaching implications in the tournament.
I explored in my previous article how Chikatara’s contribution was linked to the state of the game upon his arrival. Tunde Adeniji, who started as the lone centre-forward, produced a display that was short on fantasy, but it was his pinpoint ping to the back post that found Osas Okoro for the game’s opener.
On the surface of it, there is the temptation to then acclaim the Sunshine Stars striker in hindsight, crediting him with softening up the Mena backline for the plunder. However, this is reductive in that it ignores a truly sickly performance in the first period, the pickings slim and sparse no thanks to Adeniji’s lumbering dalliance on the wrong side of the Nigerien defence.
While Chikatara was suited to the state of the game he was introduced into, there is no evidence that Adeniji was to his. This is important because, by implication, the former becomes useful as a weapon late in games when the opposition are pushing for a goal; if Chikatara is best at exploiting spaces, it stands to reason that he would be redundant with Nigeria chasing a game.
Tunisia, Friday’s opponents, carry a significant threat from set-pieces, and their willingness to hunker down on a lead borders on habitual. They are also unlikely to display the sort of naivety that afforded Nigeria the freedom of the Nigerien half on Monday night. Were the Carthage Eagles to nick a goal, it is unlikely Chikatara would be quite as precocious coming off the bench.
Sunday Oliseh is of course aware of their individual merits, and it will be interesting to see how he resolves this riddle. A curious quirk of his time at the helm of the Super Eagles is that much of the difficulty has been self-inflicted—calling up two nominal centre-forwards for a tournament was always going to manacle him.
Rather more encouragingly, the Super Eagles coach has shown the dexterity to extricate himself time and again. This however is particularly thankless, and the rectitude of his decision – whatever it is – will only be affirmed after the fact.