When the Super Eagles of Nigeria beat Argentina in a friendly game November last year, many compatriots concluded the team was ready to take on the world come Russia 2018. The world cup was over seven months away then.
Fast forward to March 23, 2018 with barely three months to the global showpiece, the Super Eagles filed out against Poland and the game left everyone with mixed feelings. The Eagles surely won, but their overall performance leaves a lot to be desired. The Super Eagles played without a visible cohesion as well as rhythm for most part of the game and relied on a Victor Moses’ 61st minute penalty to win the match 1-0 against the run of play.
Coincidentally, Nigeria’s famous group opponent, Argentina were also up against Italy in Manchester and like Nigeria, the Albiceleste also played without chemistry, the 2-0 scoreline in their favour quite flattering. Elsewhere, Iceland lost by three goals to nothing against Mexico in California.
Head coach of the Super Eagles Gernort Rohr told journalists candidly after the game that the Eagles were nowhere near the level they want to be.
“We were lucky to have won this game against a very solid Polish side,” Rohr said after the game.
“They created some big opportunities to score and were dangerous from set pieces that we found difficult to cope with but I praise my team for their victory.
“This team is a young team but also a team of leaders. If we stay humble and continue to work hard to improve our play we have huge potentials, but beating 2 FIFA top 10 teams in friendlies doesn’t mean we are now World Cup favourites.”
While the gaffer believes results are important and still didn’t underestimate improvements, the feeling at the fanatic end is that luck will always come to the rescue even when the team perform under par.
Ultimately, a win plus a clean sheet against the 6th best ranked nation in world football is a morale booster for Nigeria’s young side. Fair enough too, the game highlighted the cracks in the team – the dilemma of experience, age and exposure in the goalkeeping department, the vulnerable left-full back position and more importantly, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho’s lack of quality playing time at their respective clubs.
Francis Uzoho shone with confidence in his cameo appearance against Argentina last year, but five months later, every bit of those flashes were missing. His nightmare throughout the Poland game was set pieces; while the poor communication between he and his defenders was loud, he also misjudged every ball that came flying over his goal area. Against the wishes of many advocates, a recall of Vincent Enyeama isn’t looking possible and Rohr throwing everything at Uzoho is indicating a trust in his potentials ahead of Ikechukwu Ezenwa, who many also believe is good enough to man the post for the Super Eagles at the world cup.
The starting eleven on Friday predictably is what it’s probably going to look like in Russia – depending on the formation Rohr will adopt for each game. Just replace Joel Obi with captain John Obi Mikel in that 4-2-3-1 style and add throw Ogenyi Onazi into the game for a 4-3-3 set up, meaning one of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho or Odion Ighalo will drop to the bench. That is not to say the likes of John Ogu will not get a nod, but having such quality on the bench is the beauty of depth in squad.
The 4-3-3 which houses the midfield tandem of Mikel, Onazi and Ndidi has proven efficient for the Super Eagles in recent games but it does leave the technical crew with the selection headache of whether to play a false nine or an outright striker.
While those areas are star-studded, it remains to be seen who will lock down the number one shirt between the sticks, and the left-full back position remains as vulnerable as ever despite having a handful of left-full backs in the squad. How much time can Rohr afford to fix these before the world cup?
Depending on how you want to explain it; whether in flying colours or not, the Eagles have passed another pre-world cup test and up next is Serbia on Tuesday.