Six months ago a lot of Nigerian football fans, buoyed by the way the team qualified for the World Cup thought they had an outside chance of winning it, or at least surpassing the country’s previous best of a 2nd round qualification.
Emerging from a tough qualifying group that included Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia, then beating Argentina 4-2 in Krasnodar in December was enough to leave die hard fans salivating at the prospects of the Super Eagles being the first African country to win the World Cup.
However, five friendly matches and three losses later, it seems the expectations of Nigerians have been brought down to earth and fair-play to Gernot Rohr, as he never joined in the ecstasy. Rohr carefully picked his team according to its strengths and told all who cared to listen that his team was not just ready for the World Cup, and would not win it.
Truth be told, the Super Eagles 23 man team has created the least controversy in a while as majority of Nigerian football followers seem to agree with the coach.
In 1994, there was the last day controversy of picking one between Victor Ikpeba and Tijani Babangida while in 1998, Peter Rufai’s emergence and the dropping of Samson Siasia, Gabriel Okolosi and Jonathan Akpoborie certainly caused tongues to wag.
In 2002, the team was in shambles and in three months, from finishing 3rd at the AFCON to the World Cup at least a 3rd of the team was cast aside, including Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh, Victor Agali, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, and Victor Ikpeba amongst others.
Before Gernot Rohr named his 30, there were voices who would have spoken out for Brown Ideye because of the style that only he brings to the team; his hold up play, off the ball runs, positioning and physical presence would have been essential. However, Rohr managed the team well and should now be perfecting strategies, formations and tactics ahead of the opening World Cup game against Croatia.
No Goalkeeping Crisis
After picking Francis Uzoho, Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Rohr told the hungry media that his team did not have a goalkeeping crisis. Did any one expect him to say differently?
After the announcement of Carl Ikeme’s ailment, Nigerians first pressurized Vincent Enyeama to return and after failing on that, it seemed the youngster, Francis Uzoho was picked as the anointed one ahead of Ezenwa and Akpeyi. Uzoho had not had too many games this past season, either as a club player or as an international so he continued to be tried in all the friendly matches, from the game against Argentina, Poland, Serbia, DR Congo, England and then Czech Republic.
He didn’t actually wow the ever critical Nigerians, but he didn’t also play himself out of the team. Just like Vincent Enyeama in 2002, Nigeria may just have discovered another number 1 who will rule the roost for another decade but how he keeps his nerves in three games against Croatia, Iceland and Argentina will go a long way to determine if that happens.
Nigeria’s weakest link yet, the defence
The term, “Oyinbo wall” was first used about a year ago, after William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun paired “superbly” in an international friendly game.
Ever since, the Nigerian media, fans and even the twosome have cashed in on the popularity of the term and have used it a lot. However, the Oyinbo wall seems the weakest link in the team.
The AFCON qualifier against South Africa in Uyo clearly exposed Troost-Ekong in the absence of Balogun. Troost-Ekong was shaky all match long and just kicked the balls out in a hurry. There was hardly any composure.
In games they have played together, leading up to the friendlies against England and the Czech Republic, they have not exactly covered themselves in glory. Same fears exist for the full backs, especially Elderson Echiejile.
Could that be why Rohr has practiced a 3-5-2 formation in recent games? To bring in an extra center back to help the Oyinbo wall, while pushing the full backs a bit forward to create an attacking edge? Tyrone Ebuehi seems soft, Bryam Idowu may be blooded at the World Cup too soon as he obviously needs more games to assert himself and Shehu Abdulahi seemed a shadow of his World Cup Qualifying self in the last few friendly games.
Rock solid midfield, but…
The midfield seems Nigeria’s strongest department but all that would count for nothing if Wilfred Ndidi is not fit enough to play. Except the coach sees things differently, one would expect his midfield three to be John Mikel Obi for his composure, Wilfred Ndidi for youth and defensive abilities and Oghenekaro Etebo for his grit, pace and big heart.
Ogenyi Onazi has been a bit slow on the ball in recent times, Joel Obi has yet to find his bearing and John Ogu has not really been given a chance to strut his stuff. But if Rohr can find a way around combining his midfielders to get the best result, then the Eagles may just fly high in Russia.
An attack consisting of the likes of Odion Ighalo, Victor Moses, Simeon Nwankwo, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho should be able to hold their own against Croatia, Argentina and Iceland, but not with the way Rohr sets up his team.
The lone man upfront, Odion Ighalo always remains too isolated to be effective making it seem to the lay man that he is below par and not good enough.
The wide men are mostly too far off, while the midfielders too deep to make the point man effective. Gernot Rohr knows the strength of his team and will surely play according to it. So it will be interesting to see how he sets up, but judging from the friendly games played so far, it may still be one isolated and frustrated center forward up front.
Can Rohr tinker with his tactics and play both Simeon Nwankwo and Odion Ighalo up front in a 4-4-2? Or can he play Kelechi Iheanacho just behind Ighalo on a 4-4-1-1? It all depends on how adventurous he is on the day, but my guess is that it will not happen.
The Eagles will perform well or poorly at the World Cup, depending on the expectations of the fans. The twenty three Rohr has picked are about the best Nigeria has for now.
Can the Eagles win the World Cup? Can they get out of their group? Only what Rohr puts forward can determine these.
By China Acheru (Twitter: @Ikwerreman)