Brave Nigeria bow out as Spain soldier on

Posted by Roger Bennett

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL -- A courageous Nigeria team exited the Confederations Cup with their dignity very much intact despite being on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline against European and world champions, Spain. At the final whistle, the Super Eagles left the field as the spectators' clear moral victors with the crowd chanting "Nigeria! Nigeria!" albeit in suspiciously Brazilian accents.

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Even on a muggy day like this, being a moral victor earns you no points, and it is Spain who will proceed to meet Italy in a rematch of the Euro 2012's final on Thursday night.

Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi said after the game that although the 90 minutes was a “learning curve against a very good team,” he believed “a three-goal victory did not reflect the game.” He knew his team had successfully interrupted a subpar Spain’s obsession with possession, charging forward with abandon, especially in a first half in which they completed 39 passes in the final third to Spain’s 48, only to rue their finishing. The Super Eagles conjured 13 shots but only three on goal as, time and time again, their pace and movement were nullified by their own wasteful, final decision-making. “We had so much anxiety in front of the goal line,” Keshi rued, “We created chances. We just could not finish."

Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque was tight lipped in victory. “It was a difficult match,” he admitted. “[Nigeria] were excellent opponents who really challenged for the ball. Though we finally won, both teams should have scored more goals."

Since winning the 2008 Euros, Spain’s dynastic era has been defined by a ruthless professionalism and consistency from which this game was a day off, yet as Spanish journalists pressed to understand why their team struggled to cope with the Nigerian pace and movement, Del Bosque would not be drawn.

Asked if the energy-sapping heat was a factor, Del Bosque acknowledged it was “too hot to play 90 minutes in that temperature, and so you have to slow the game down by keeping hold of the ball.” Upon being challenged to define if his team missed the defensive double-pivot shield offered by the injured Xabi Alonso at Euro 2012, he mumbled “it has more to do with the players than the system,” before shifting the conversation to the adjustments his team made at halftime, revealing, “We realized [Nigeria] sometimes overshot with a pass or with their defensive line, and then we struck forward, their dynamism dimmed when they could not score, and the intensity went out of them.”

AP Photo/Victor R. CaivanoVicente Del Bosque must lift his side against Italy

He also refused to analyze the performance of striker Roberto Soldado, who started despite the duo of David Villa and Fernando Torres having knocked home seven goals against Tahiti. Soldado was smothered by two Nigerian League central defenders, Azubuike Egwueke (of Warri Wolves) and Godfrey Oboabona (Sunshine Stars FC.) When Torres trotted on to replace him in the 60th minute, the Chelsea striker scored within two minutes with his first touch. Del Bosque refused to suggest whether the striker position was now open, claiming only “Roberto did his job and Fernando did his.”

Vintage Spain this was not. More the performance of a team that has struggled recently by its own high standards, tying Finland and France in World Cup qualifying. Whether this can be attributed to the heat, tired legs of exhausted players or the product of the behind-the-scenes discontent between players and management, as Xavi hinted, remains to be seen. Though two-goal hero Jordi Alba admitted, “it’s not normal that I score twice in a game,” adding, “I think it is the first time,” Del Bosque preferred to explain the reliance on his defender for goals by saying “this is the football we like. We are all defenders, we are all midfielders, we are all attackers.”

Italy await on Thursday night in Fontaleza. Del Bosque handicapped their challenge. “The Italians have maintained the core of their Euro 2012 squad. They have the motivation now, as they will want to get even after our last encounter.” Alba, who scored a buccaneering second goal in that 4-0 final spanking, looked ahead to Thursday’s game with a sincere relish, “With rivalries like ours, you never know what is going to happen.”

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