© 2018 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
FOCUS: Why Eagles may not fly in Russia
AFTER last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat in the hands of Vatreni (The Fiery Ones) of Croatia, it is becoming clearer that the Super Eagles of Nigeria may not go beyond the first stage of the Russia 2018 World Cup. This is not an expression of unpatriotic disposition, but the reality against patriotism.
For a team that had difficulties creating scoring chances and bereft of ideas in front of goal posts, in addition to making mistakes at set-pieces, meeting superior opponents like Iceland and Argentina comes with a lot of doubts and anxiety for fans.
As the Eagles entered Russia, expectations were high, because in Nigeria, soccer is the only unifying religion across all divides.
And despite obvious facts the national team might not be in for a fantastic outing at the world cup, many are still optimistic for a good run in Putin’s country.
But in reality, not even Mystic Marcus, the psychic pig that picked Nigeria, Argentina as semi-finalists for the World Cup would be let down when eventually the Eagles exit the championship just after the first round.
If the Eagles crash out in the first round− which is likely to happen after their next match− because their opponents; Iceland and Argentina meant business at the fiesta, then, the national team would have gone the way of 2002 in Korea and 2010 in South Africa where they failed to make it to the second round.
Though, soccer lovers and analysts felt the Super Eagles would make a memorable world cup appearance in Russia having being the first African team to secure the qualification ticket beating arch-rivals, Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia to the slot.
And of course, the hype that greeted their preparation to the mundial− occasioned by their most pretty jersey designed by Nike left little or nothing to worry about as to whether the Eagles would fly when the chips are down.
DID RESULTS OF FRIENDLIES MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE?
The build up to the World Cup tell it all− in the last friendly match, Super Eagles lost 1-0 to Czech Republic which did not qualify for the World Cup, just a week after another defeat to the Three Lions of England. These were in early June, just days to the kick-off of the World Cup.
However, the team managed a slim 1-0 victory against Poland before recording a 2-0 loss to Serbia in England, and also pulled a disappointing 1-1 draw with DR Congo in May at the Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium, Port Harcourt.
For those who could read in between the lines; results from those friendlies were pointers to a very abysmal performance waiting to happen in Russia.
Gernot Rohr, Eagles Coach and indeed, many ex-Super Eagles were quick to rally behind the team − not to be judged by the outcome of the friendlies. The only thing that was apparent after those friendlies was that the Super Eagles was still a work in progress.
From the absence of a cohesive and solid back-four, to a lackluster midfield and flat footed attack, pundits expressed their reservations that, safe for their beautiful jersey, the Super Eagles lack the characters and qualities of a world beater and may not rise to the occasion.
The Coach said his team was taking shape after the final friendly against the Czech Republic with a promise to perfect his boys. But it appears that he did not take lessons from those friendlies to the heart. It’s also arguable that he took lessons from those poor runs of performances. He failed to carry out the needed changes on the team.
The last Saturday’s defeat of the Super Eagles in the hands of The Fiery Ones was quite an indication that the Eagles are not the World Cup materials, at least for Russia 2018 edition.
WHAT HAS ROHR LEARNED FROM THE FRIENDLIES?
Repeatedly, Gernot Rohr, after those defeats said “we have learnt valuable lessons,” particularly against Serbia who were believed to play the same pattern of football like the Croats that eventually outclassed the Eagles in their opening match.
He did say no soccer team in the world win all their games, but with a promise that “we have to bounce back.”
Eagles are yet to bounce back.
In his close to two years engagement as the Coach of Super Eagles, Rohr has recorded four defeats− the last for now was in the hands of the Croats. He has eight wins and five draws, and in all, he has superintended 18 games for the Eagles.
What is not clear after the outcome of all the friendlies is if the coach is still experimenting with tactics and formations, having worked with the same team to qualify for the World Cup.
Ahead of the matches against Poland and Serbia, he revealed that he would change his formation “ so we can change where necessary.”
Before those matches, Rohr played 4-3-3, 5-3-2 and later played 4-4-2 against DR Congo which Nigeria is known for.
All his styles have however not provided the expected results and is already a major source of worries among fans and soccer pundits. The midfield, regarded as the engine room, despite being marshalled by Mikel Obi, is not living up to expectation.
The Super Eagles midfield as rightly observed by many analysts lack the expected creativity that can open the opponents’ defense.
Rohr seems not to have taken note of this or he still keeping faith in Mikel Obi to do the creative stuff. The Eagles’ captain has lost his mercurial touches he was known for as an U-21 player some 13 years ago.
Again, the combination of Leon Balogun, and Shehu Abdullahi at the back is a forced marriage which is not working as the duo are not playing for each other. This, the coach ought to have noticed in the match against England and Czeck Republic.
Besides, Ogenyi Onazi that Rohr rested in the opening match apparently for his poor run of form in the build -up matches, which made way of Oghenekharo Etebo, the Coach had not tinkered with his starting line-up he used to play the last two friendlies. Etebo, despite the own goal he conceded has proved his worth to maintain the starting XI in the subsequent matches.
While many are not really concerned about the formation, what they want to see is a rejig of the team from the back four to the midfield and the attack. Many opined that the midfield which lacks a creative midfielder should witness a turn-around where Alex Iwobi , arguably the most creative player in the pack will take charge and Mikel Obi plays defensive midfield.
If Eagles must fly and be in the Semi Final as predicted by the Mystic Marcus, then, the duo of Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa must run the flanks to supply Odion Ighalo, who the last formation used by the coach has shown lacks adequate passes from the midfield. Moses creative moves on the left and Musa’s speed on the right would do well to open up the opponents’ defense in the subsequent matches.
HISTORICAL FACTS AND FAMILIAR FOES
In 2002 and 2010, the Super Eagles earned one point apiece after struggling to score just one goal in Korea/Japan hosted World Cup and three goals in South Africa which hosted the 2010 edition.
In Brazil in 2014, after a draw against Iran, 3-2 lost to Argentina and a 1-0 victory over debutant Bosnia Herzegovina, they made it to the second round, the third by the Super Eagles after USA 94 and France 98. But they were eliminated courtesy of a 2-0 defeat to France.
Historically, USA 94 and France 98 were the only editions of the World cup where the Super Eagles won their first matches and also eased to the second round. In all, the Eagles previous five appearances at the world cup produced three second round experiences.
Again, the team also struggled to score a goal in its opening match once since 2002−Nigerian match against Sweden. At every other world cup−2010, 2014 and the ongoing Russia 2018, the Super Eagles could not find the back of the net in their opening games.
As for their opponents in Russia, the Eagles are facing a familiar foe, Argentina and a little known Iceland. Super Eagles have never defeated Argentina in any competitive match at the senior category. They both have met four times at the World Cup−1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014− Argentina won all the four matches.
Though, the South Americans played a 1-1 draw with Iceland, they are still a better side compared to the Eagles.
It’s most likely they would have upper hand over the Eagles when they meet in their last group stage match.
History is there and form is another advantage. Even if they lost their match against Croatia, Argentina will still play for pride to beat the Eagles expect Rohr parades a tactically sound and disciplined team.
For Iceland, Super Eagles would not have an easy match against them as previously thought by many fans. What more? Iceland forced Argentina to a 1-1 and that was a clear message to the Nigerian side that they are not a push-overs.
CAN NIGERIA BEAT ICELAND?
Nigeria’s hope of continuing in the World Cup, at least, advancing to the second round lies in beating the Iceland.
Rohr would safe his name and perhaps his job, when he features a better team, which not only picks up immediately with the blast of whistle as against the one starts slowly, but also go all out scoring needed goals, defend well and eventually win the game.
That might not be too easy though−the 2018 World Cup meant a lot to Iceland− the country qualified for the first time of a FIFA World Cup in the 2018 edition.
This meant that after 12 failed qualification campaigns, Iceland are appearing at the World Cup for the first time in their history, and appear at only their second major international tournament, after qualifying for UEFA Euro 2016 two years earlier.
Iceland will also be the smallest nation to reach the World Cup finals, breaking the record set by Trinidad and Tobago
So, when Eagles file out against them, they definitely have a formidable opponent that can make or mar their World Cup campaign. And it is definitely after 90 minutes of action that Nigerians would answer weather the Eagles are flying high or not.