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

Leave a comment

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.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

2 Comments

Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

Leave a comment

The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
1 Comment

What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

Leave a comment

Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —