Francis Uzoho emerged as one of the central figures in a riveting 2-2 draw between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia on Friday, leaving the pitch of the Estadio Municipal De Portimao as the game’s number-one villain.
Despite the Super Eagles’ status as the bookies’ favourites, the encounter left fans on the edge of their seats as both teams locked horns in only their second-ever friendly clash.
Nigeria, buoyed by a Saudi Arabian own goal and a splendid strike from Kelechi Iheanacho, found themselves frustrated as the resilient three-time Asian Cup winners mounted a spirited comeback, capitalizing on the avoidable lapses of the Super Eagles’ defence.
The blunders leading to both goals conceded were alarmingly low-level, reminiscent of the heart-wrenching Ghanaian goal that shattered Nigeria’s World Cup dreams in March 2022.
The first goal was credited to Salman Al Faraj, but it should have gone into the record books as Francis Uzoho’s own goal.
Uzoho made a mess of Al Faraj’s free-kick on the hour mark, diverting into his net when it appeared easier to punch it over the bar.
Head coach Jose Peseiro, in quick defence of Uzoho’s performance, gallantly assumed responsibility for the goalkeeper’s blunder, urging critics to redirect their scrutiny towards the team’s collective performance rather than solely targeting the goalkeeper.
Peseiro, in his statement, said of Uzoho:
“I like our players. When they make mistakes, it is my responsibility. The goalkeepers never play freely or calmly because of the people. I don’t know why they attack the goalkeepers every time. Why don’t they attack the strikers when they lose a ball or miss a goal?
“When I arrived here, I remember I was told to change the goalkeeper. I spoke with all of them; no one felt comfortable because everybody attacked them. They could make mistakes; it is my responsibility. Next time, I need to train him (Uzoho) better.”
However, Peseiro faces a critical juncture in his quest to steer the Super Eagles to victory in the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.
Undeniably, Peseiro’s steadfast support for Uzoho seemed commendable, yet for the looming AFCON, the seasoned coach must confront the hard truth: Uzoho’s current abilities may not be sufficient to secure the Super Eagles’ triumph.
At just 24, Uzoho remains a work in progress, endowed with time to mature and fulfill his potential, but presently falls way short of predecessors like Vincent Enyeama and Ike Shorunmu.
While Uzoho’s potential remains undeniable, Peseiro’s quest for immediate success necessitates a more reliable custodian.
Although alternatives like Maduka Okoye and Adebayo Adeleye showcase promise, their limited experience renders them untested for such high-stakes events.
Adeleye, though, deserves the chance to man the posts for Nigeria over the next few games, and should he impress, the 23-year-old could be considered the first-choice at the AFCON.
Meanwhile, the impressive performances of South Africa-based Stanley Nwabili and Arsenal-owned Arthur Okoronkwo, coupled with the promising local talents of Ojo Olorunleke, Bankole Kayode, and Amas Obasogie, offer Peseiro a diverse pool of choices.
In light of the unfortunate consequences of the Super Eagles’ goalkeeping errors recently, evinced by the 2021 AFCON disappointment at the hands of Tunisia, Peseiro must tread cautiously.
Whether he remains loyal to Uzoho or ventures into uncharted territory, the burden of choice lies heavily upon his shoulders, and it is poised to define the Super Eagles’ fate in the upcoming championship.