Make or mar, win or bust! Such are some of the adjectives that have flooded the Nigerian media over the past four days as we try to properly describe the significance of today’s big game between 3-time African Champions Nigeria and reigning Champions, Cameroon.
The 24 invited players have been sweating it out at the Nest of Champions in Uyo, venue of Friday’s game since Tuesday and with a full complement of important stars that contributed to the team’s blistering start to the World Cup qualifiers last month, Rohr has some selection dilemma.
Injury to Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi sounds like a dampening blow to the team’s attacking options but it might as well serve as a blessing in disguise for Rohr in the sense of easing some selection problems he is already facing.
Hull City’s Ola Aina is also set to miss this game on eligibility ground while the Franco-German coach confirmed on Wednesday that Ikechukwu Ezenwa will be in goal.
In the meantime, here are the key problems the Franco-German coach must provide good answers to ahead of Friday’s game.
Which right back to deploy
Like any other team in sub Saharan Africa, the Cameroonians are capable of causing Nigeria problems on the flanks. Mr Rohr has obviously settled for the left back to be used on Friday but the right back position is another problem he must solve.
Since taking charge of the team about a year ago, Rohr has used FIVE right backs in just seven games, showing how problematic that position has been from him. From Musa Mohammed to Wilfried Ndidi, then Kenneth Omeruo and Tyronne Ebuehi while not forgetting Shehu Abdullahi who played the last game against South Africa, none has really done enough to make that position his.
With Aina’s FIFA clearance not likely to arrive in time for the game, Rohr must decide to either gamble with a player without senior international experience or perhaps convert another player into that position.
My pick: Shehu Abdullahi. Didn’t get to start under Rohr until the Togo friendly and did enough to start against South Africa. Perhaps the lesser of the evil although he can deliver when trusted and of course, the fasting season is over.
Who plays with Mikel?
The consensus among Nigerians after the last game was that the team missed the calming influence of captain, John Mikel Obi. What his inclusion brings to the team is what Rohr must decipher. Mikel should start. But where will he play and how will it affect Kelechi Iheanacho? Rohr must find a way of playing both players in their most functional positions with the team alongside Victor Moses to bring a devastating effect on the opponents.
Mikel has been deployed mostly as a defensive midfielder at his Chinese club in his five competitive appearances with them (including twice this month on his return from injury) but he surely fancies an advanced role with the Eagles. Whether Mikel plays behind the striker or not, one thing is certain: at least one of Ogenyi Onazi, Wilfried Ndidi or Oghenekaro Etebo will not start.
With Etebo’s energy needed against the likes of Maxim Choupo-Moting and Christian Bassogog the way he excelled against Algeria last November, it remains to be seen if Rohr would favour the former Warri Wolves man behind Mikel and one of Ndidi or Onazi. He must solve this midfield conundrum the best possible way.
My pick: Leave Mikel at his No. 10 role, has hardly had a bad game in that role for the Eagles and indeed loves Uyo. Play Etebo and Ndidi behind him with Iheanacho at the right wing, to drift inside and join play while Moses stays on his favourite position for the national team, the left wing.
Last chance for Odion Ighalo?
The former Watford man has discovered his scoring touch in the East, scoring on regularity now for Changchun Yatai. Ighalo has scored thrice for Nigeria in his twelve appearances but only one of them came in a competitive game – against Chad on his debut in 2015.
As prolific as he has been at club level since then, Nigerians have grown impatient with his often anonymous performances in crucial games for the country and the last time he was called up under Rohr, he was left as an unused substitute.
He looks favourite to start in the No. 9 position ahead of Anthony Nwakaeme and the recently invited Aaron Samuel but must show Nigerians for probably the last chance that the number 9 shirt belongs to him.
My preferred lineup:
Ezenwa; Shehu, Echiejile, Balogun, Troost-Ekong; Ndidi, Etebo, Mikel; Iheanacho, V. Moses, Nwakaeme.
Gernot Rohr’s probable selection:
I believe Mr Rohr prioritizes “senior players” whenever they are in town so will find a way to start Ogenyi Onazi in midfield.
The German is also expected to go for natural width on the flanks with Moses Simon joining the “real Moses”.
And of course, Odion Ighalo is in form, his inclusion was called for and qualifies for that “senior player” tag even if he has just 12 caps with the team.
Ezenwa; Shehu, Echiejile, Balogun, Troost-Ekong; Onazi, Ndidi, Mikel; V. Moses, S. Moses, Ighalo.
Whose selection do you agree with? Mine or Rohr’s or probably you have yours? Feel free to vent your thoughts on the comments section beneath this story.