Nigeria v Burkina Faso - 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Final

Offshore Drilling, Africa Cup of Nations: Nigeria 1, Burkina Faso 0

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A single moment of brilliance separated the teams on the scoreboard, but the gap in quality was greater. After the match’s initial settling in period, we knew Nigeria were better. Their superior quality on the ball gave them more promise in attack. As the first half unfolded, the favorites started enjoying large advantages in possession.

Those advantages eventually allowed midfielder Sunday Mba — a 24-year-old midfielder who’s never played outside of native country — to break through, scoring the 40th minute goal that downed Burkina Faso and gave the Super Eagles their third African title, 1-0.

Three Mba touches won the Cup for Nigeria. Trying to settle after poor first touch, Mba (right) poked the ball into over an onrushing Mohamed Koffi and into the penalty area with his right foot before getting a shot off with his left. The ball didn’t hit the ground. Volleying a shot toward the right post before Bakary Koné closed him down, the Nigeria-based midfielder gave the Super Eagles the only goal they’d need. Mba put his name in the history books as the man who reclaimed the title.

That title had been in others’ hands for 19 years. For all the acclaim the Super Eagles have received as a result of being a near-perpetual World Cup qualifier, Nigeria had failed to live up to their reputation at home. With this win, the team turns back the clock, winning their first major title since Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh were patrolling the midfield.

Another name on that 1994 team was defender Stephen Keshi, the man who coached Nigeria on Sunday. While Mba may have been the man of the moment in Johannesburg, Keshi was the story of the tournament. Much maligned at home for declining to call in veteran stars Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, and Taye Taiwo, Keshi put his coaching livelihood on the line by wagering a house cleaning would restore some of the Nigerians’ spirit – a pride that had lacking during a 2010 World Cup disappointment and failure to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations.

Electing to play a younger, more balanced, and more cohesive team, Keshi saw his gamble vindicated when the Super Eagles ousted tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire last Sunday. With their 4-1 win over Mali on Wednesday, Keshi’s team got their chance to make history. From the moment Mba’s shot crossed Burkina Faso’s goal line, there was little doubt the Nigerians would have their breakthrough.

source: Getty ImagesMan of the Match: Sunday Mba’s individual effort takes this award, but take that moment away and Burkina Fasi’s Jonathan Pitroipa (right) would have won the award, just deserts for a player who was clearly this tournament’s best. On Sunday, he was the Stallions’ one bright spot in attack, his skill on the ball creating a number of near-opportunities for the underdogs. Whether playing through the middle or back in his customary wide position, he was the only player that troubled the Nigerians.

From the tournament’s outset it was clear: It was time for Pitroipa to step up. To this point in his international career, the Rennes star had failed to replicate his club form for country. As one of the Stallions’ few elite talents, Burkina Faso was only going to go as far as Pitroipa took them.

With a breakthrough performance, the 26-year-old put that criticism behind him. Seeing his red card suspension overturned before the final, Pitroipa nearly completed the first-time finalists’ Cinderella story. With a little more help from his teammates, he might have done it.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Not all sacred cows shouldn’t be worshipped – Nigeria’s diminishing results gave Keshi reason to show his icons the door, but the Super Eagles had to hit rock bottom before somebody (and really, only a few people) saw the light. Other countries with iconic burdens should look to the 2011 Not-So-Super Eagles as a lesson. You should act before you’re forced to do so.

Here in the States, we’re having a debate about Carlos Bocanegra. Fairly or not, people are also starting to whisper about Tim Howard. Italy had to fall flat in 2010, while England’s just recently started moving on from their almost golden generation. These debates happen all over the world.

The lesson to draw from Nigeria: Sometimes moving on doesn’t necessarily mean moving down. Teams get scared that moving the Bocanegras, Cannavaros, and Gerrards of the world aside represents a one-step back, two-step forward scenario, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the difference in talent doesn’t match the gap in reputation. And reputations are only earned by playing.

Sometimes, you have to take a chance.

Oh these cagey, cagey finals – Burkina Faso wasn’t bad, but Nigeria was a much better team, just as Spain was a much better team than the Netherlands in South Africa. Both games ended 1-0 mostly because of the styles the teams employed. When the difference in reward between winning and losing is at its greatest, it’s no surprise teams become risk averse.

Mexico came out cagey and almost got burned in the last Gold Cup final. Japan beat Australia 1-0 in extra time of the last Asian confederation final. Only Uruguay (2011 Copa America) and Spain (Euro 2012) took recent finals by the horns, though Spain’s 2008 European title was also a 1-0.

There’ve only been three goals in the last five Cup of Nations finals, but that’s not all Africa. Games with these stakes usually produce cagey soccer.

source: Getty ImagesNot every talent plays in Europe – Of course, nobody thinks Europe has a monopoly on world soccer’s talent, but in an age of YouTube, internet streams, and blogs about everything, there is a sense that there are no undiscovered talents, only neglected ones.

Sunday’s final dispelled that notion. The Man of the Match is still playing in the Nigerian league. Godfrey Oboabona (right), one of Nigeria’s central defenders, also plays in his domestic league, while Burkina Faso’s impact substitute, Willy Sanou, is playing in the second division of Japanese soccer.

Those stories might not get people watching Morocco 2015, but it is a reminder that good soccer exists beyond our usual haunts. Tournaments like Copa America, Asian Cup, Cup of Nations and even our own Gold Cup are great showcases for it.

And if you’re lucky, some of that soccer will involve something distinct to that corner of the world. Like vuvuzelas. BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!

Packaged for takeaway

  • Mba’s goal wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Victor Moses. The Chelsea attacker’s skill during a 1-on-3 produced the shot that was blocked out to Mba.
  • Burkina Faso played a 4-2-3-1 formation. Nigeria stayed with their 4-3-3, but electing not to press high during the early portion of the match, the defensive shape folded into a 4-1-4-1 through most of the first half. Rather than pressure Burkina Faso’s defense, Moses and Brown Ideye, the wingers at the onset, played very deep in Keshi’s initial base setup.
  • Sanou came closest to a Burkina Faso goal. A blast along the ground from 18 yards to the right of goal forced goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama to palm the ball wide of the far post.
  • The referee mistakenly awarded Nigeria a goal kick on Sanou’s shot, meaning Burkina Faso finished their only Cup of Nations final without a shot on goal.
  • The win qualifies Nigeria for this summer’s Confederations Cup. They’ll be grouped with Spain, Uruguay, and Tahiti.

Report: Guardiola to take manager’s job at Man City next season

Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Manchester City desperately want to lure Pep Guardiola away from Bayern Munich and pay the Spaniard tactician lots and lots of money to come manage in the Premier League.

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Of course we’ve all heard it before — a number of times, in fact. So, what’s different about the latest report, hitting the headlines very late Thursday night in Europe, linking the 44-year-old to Man City?

Well, apparently, we’ve moved past “Man City will offer Guardiola whatever he wants to come to the Etihad Stadium,” and arrived at “Guardiola has agreed terms to become manager at Man City.”

However, the respected Spanish radio station Cadena COPE is reporting that Guardiola has already decided he would like “a change of scenery” and will succeed Manuel Pellegrini at the Etihad Stadium.

“Pep Guardiola will leave Bayern Munich at the end of this season and will train Manchester City next season,” read the report.

“Guardiola has decided on a change of scenery. He considers his time in Germany will end on 30 June after three seasons and, therefore, fulfil one of his wishes: to coach in England.”

With all due respect to every player Man City have signed in the last decade, the acquisition of Guardiola would be, by far, their greatest coup to date — a manager with a clear ethos, a clear plan of action and a track record of having succeeded and won in the UEFA Champions League, which remains the most elusive trophy to City’s cabinet.

Mourinho-Costa feud could mean January transfer activity for Chelsea

Diego Costa & Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
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Perhaps no man in the footballing world has been embroiled in more controversy this season than Jose Mourinho, who remains in charge of Chelsea despite a horrid start to the club’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign.

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The Portuguese mastermind has fallen out with a number of his own players and staff this season, so why not add another name to the growing list? Come on down, Diego Costa, you’re Mourinho’s next combatant.

The two reportedly got into a heated locker-room exchange following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Given Costa’s increasingly poor form all the way back to the final weeks and months of the 2014-15 season — just seven goals scored in the last 10 months — Mourinho is reportedly less and less sure the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard is the right man to lead the line for the reigning PL champions.

The details of Mourinho and Costa’s halftime spat, from the Guardian:

Mourinho, just as he did after a similar situation against Norwich on Saturday, made his frustrations clear at the forward’s lack of anticipation over an Eden Hazard pass, which would have provided the striker with a tap-in had he been on the move. Costa returned his manager’s remonstrations in kind. Oscar and John Terry tried to calm him down only to be pushed aside. The manager subsequently suggested there had been “a few kisses, a few cuddles” in the dressing room at the interval, and “no problem,” though the public show of dissent was notable.

The club’s hierarchy is reportedly considering dipping into the transfer market in January — something they’re extremely loath to do — to replace the misfiring Costa. The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Saido Berahino are the biggest currently linked with the Blues, given the lack of elite players typically available — as well as not being cup-tied in the Champions League — during the January window.

Chelsea, who currently sit 15th in the PL, return to league action on Sunday when they visit Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane (Watch live at 6:30 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.