After Saudi Arabia pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, defeating eventual champions Argentina 2-1 in a Group C game, the Middle East nation momentarily enjoyed the limelight of demystifying the South Americans with their legendary Lionel Messi.
Although Saudi Arabia led by Frenchman Herve Renard finished at the bottom of the group and exited the first Mundial in the Arab world at the group stage, the Green Falcons showed what is possible when a thoroughbred manager is in-charge of a team with ambition.
It is against this background that one needs to look at the international friendly between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria at the Estadio Municipal de Portimao in Portugal this evening (5pm Nigeria time) as a test of character between two managers.
Ordinarily, Saudi Arabia’s Italian Manager, Roberto Mancini, is a tested and trusted gaffer with better credential than Super Eagles’ Portuguese head coach, Jose Peseiro. That has not translates to quick success, though. Saudi Arabia under Mancini have lost to Costa Rica (3-1) and South Korea (1-0) since taking charge in August. However, Nigeria’s legion of talents scattered all over the leagues in Europe, give Peseiro advantage over his more illustrious counterpart. What may make the difference is the tactical acumen both men bring to bear on their teams this evening.
While Mancini is still searching for his first win in-charge of Saudi Arabia, Peseiro boasts of five in six last outings. Guinea-Bissau inflicted the first defeat on Eagles under his watch. Although that did not stop the Nigeria Football Federation from giving him a six months extension to his contract that expired in June, the local press and some vocal football stakeholders appear not impress with what he’s offering with his wards. They feel that qualification of Nigeria for AFCON 2023 is more of a birthright! The real task for Peseiro is to see win the continental title as well as qualify Nigeria for the 2026 World Cup after missing the cut in the last edition in Qatar. It is only then that Nigerians will begin to see Peseiro in the mould of Clemens Westerhof and the likes.
Interestingly, the only time that Nigeria and Saudi Arabia have met was with Peseiro in charge of the Green Falcons in 2010 World Cup preparatory clash.
With exciting talents like Bright Osayi-Samuel, Jordan Torunarigha, Calvin Bassey, Bruno Onyemaechi, Raphael Onyedika, Fisayo Dele-Bashiru, Terem Moffi, Victor Boniface, Samuel Chukwueze, Sadiq Umar and of course FIFA Ballon d’Or Dozen-Shortlist member, Victor Osimhen, at Peseiro’s disposal, ever-demanding Nigerian ball fans will want to see more goals in this game as Nigeria prepare to begin the race to the 2026 World Cup qualification series.
There are also experienced defenders Kenneth Omeruo (who was in the 2013 AFCON-winning squad and is happy to echo ‘Let’s Do It Again’), Semi Ajayi and Chidozie Awaziem, midfielders Wilfred Ndidi, Frank Onyeka, Joseph Ayodele-Aribo and Alex Iwobi, and forwards Moses Simon and Kelechi Iheanacho.
While Peseiro will surely miss in-form Nottingham Forest of England forward Taiwo Awoniyi, who is sidelined by injury, there is the opportunity to either start Victor Boniface or see what rave-making France-based Terem Moffi can truly offer.
Moffi was in Peseiro’s first roll-of-the-dice with the Eagles in the friendlies against Mexico and Ecuador in the USA last year’s summer, and scored as the Eagles marched on Sao Tome and Principe to set a record international scoreline in an AFCON 2023 qualifying match in Agadir, Morocco some days later.
With the recall of goalkeeper Maduka Okoye, the rivalry between him and Francis Uzoho for Nigeria’s number one jersey resumes, and both goal-tenders know that only the best will keep the gloves in next month’s World Cup qualifiers and at the AFCON early next year