The recent invitation of players to the national team for the March friendlies against Poland and Serbia is similar to a table card game. It is the moment where a player with the winning card exposes his position without much talk, a smile, but exudes an expectation that signals the end for opponents.
Nigeria’s Manager Gernot Rohr is the player with that winning card and no matter his efforts to disguise the expected outcome, the rest of the world knows what is coming. He has exposed ‘his hand’ with the recent invitations of national team players.
The final 23 players headed to the World Cup is hardly a mystery now. Rohr has affirmed his conservatism and he has not denied that tendency since he arrived in Nigeria. To be clear, conservatism is not a bad thing and, in fact, it may be a virtue. If you are conservative with a young team that has tasted victory, it is an advantage.
Rohr will be keeping most of the players who led him to the World Cup and that it is what the invitations are about. Never mind that he invited a few new players. At the end, no more than a couple of those will join the World Cup party. Bet on that.
In spite of the Nigerian media and fan despair with goalkeeping, Rohr has stuck with the three that have hardly inspired confidence. Obviously, he believes those three are good enough. It will be too late in May/June to introduce a new goalkeeper.
The only likelihood at that point is to recall a veteran who has previously played for the national team. The surprise here is that with three positions in the World Cup squad, the three who recently were invited are virtually headed for Russia except if a veteran receives an invitation in May. But the only way that happens is if one of the current goalkeepers disappoints in the March friendlies.
In defence, the only battle is at left back where three players –Echiejile (Elderson), (Brian)Idowu, and (Ola)Aina – are in competition for two positions. These friendlies are likely going to decide who has the advantage. The newly invited Stephen Eze is more of a test for Kenneth Omeruo but Eze has to play excellently in order for Omeruo to be dislodged from the World Cup list. That is unlikely.
Although Eze has the talent and the determination but his tackling is a major concern. Therefore, taking him to the World Cup is like throwing meat to hungry lions in terms of a penalty kick or disqualification waiting to happen.
In the end and with the left back likely decided in May, the final list of defenders will be eight – Shehu, Ebuehi, Balogun, Ekong, Awaziem, Omeruo? And two left backs.
In midfield, I believe Rohr will take nine players. Seven are already known – Wilfred Ndidi, Mikel Obi, Oghene Etebo, Ogenyi Onazi, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, and Victor Moses. The other two spots will be taken from these players Joel Obi, John Ogu, Ahmed Musa, Mikel Agu, and Uche Agbo. This is where a player who did not make the qualifier may take a spot and the favourite is Joel Obi.
Up front, the team is likely to take three players. Of course, taking only three is a realization that Iwobi and Musa (If he makes the team) can also be used in striking positions. In any case, Iheanacho and Ighalo have more than likely taken two of the spots. The invitation of Gabriel Okechukwu and Junior Ajayi is a signal that Rohr is highly uncertain on who takes the third spot. Previous trialists in those positions – Brown Ideye, Anthony Nwakaeme, Kayode Olanrewaju – had not exactly wowed any one.
Thus, here is a chance for Okechukwu and Ajayi. If they both fail in the March friendlies, other players would be receiving invitations to the May camp.
Ultimately, Rohr has signaled what the World Cup squad will look like and it is clearly underlined in his latest invitations for the March friendlies. He has stuck with the players who helped qualify the team for the World Cup. The only chance for new players will be more likely in the midfield and forward positions with an outside chance for a goalkeeper.