Saturday, June 16, 2018

With Hopes Dimming, Silver Lining Remains Argentina 1 Iceland 1......

Nigeria's hopes heads towards a possible implosion after the 0-2 loss in Kaliningrad to Croatia but some how there is still a chance to grab a spot in the second phase of the World Cup because the other group game between Argentina and Iceland ended 1-1. Thus, with Nigeria bringing up the rear in the group, they are just a point out of second place. It may be thinking of the cup as half full but that is the best face after a disappointing loss to Croatia. Yet, to still hope to reach the second phase of this World Cup, Nigeria must now get favorable results in its next two games. However, Nigeria has never reached the second phase of the World Cup after losing the opening game but records are meant to be broken.

The loss to Croatia featured what has become a broken record for Nigeria if that term (Broken record) is still in use given that only the very old can remember what a broken record sounds like. But for Nigeria that broken record is conceding goals via set pieces, REPEATEDLY. Against Croatia, the two goals came from such sets. None came in open play. The first was gravely disappointing. Nigeria had conceded several set piece goals in preparatory games before the World Cup and Manager Gernot Rohr promised that the team would work on it. Yet, in the 31st minute, two players were left unmarked deep in the six yard box as a corner kick floated in. It seemed Nigeria would escape the danger when the low header from Croatia was certainly heading wide of the goal but unfortunately a lurking Oghenekaro Etebo re-directed it into his own net. It was a stain on Etebo's day, a day when he was just one of the few that showed up to play. The second goal was worse, in the 70th minute, in response to yet another cornerback, William Ekong was desperate to defend the set piece but he made a meal of it. He openly grabbed Croatia's Mandzuric and wrestled him down for an obvious penalty kick. At that moment, the game was clearly beyond Nigeria.

Manager Rohr must now win the next game in order for Nigeria avoid elimination in this group and it is against a fiercely organized Icelandic team that is the most deadly from set pieces. It would be a huge challenge, indeed. But he must produce the results or his stay in Nigeria is headed for an end point.

Here is how the players rated:

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.0 -- The worst was anticipated for him but he came out looking good. Not that he was busy because Croatia hardly produced any worthy shot at goal and he ended up making a magnificent 1 v 1 save in injury time.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.1 -- Although largely villified before the game, he ended up producing some timely saves but again he did little going forward.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.1 -- He surely will have a nightmare watching his arm wrestling that ended Nigeria's hopes of coming back in this game. Beyond that, he had a stellar outing but that stuff must lead to a downgrade of his rating in this game.

Leon Balogun (5) -- 6.7 -- The best player in a Nigerian shirt. He defended quite well and had two shots at goal, one more than Ighalo and one more that Iheanacho, both strikers.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 6.0 -- He was average but defended stoutly. In the opening half, he left some gaps down his side in attempts to join the attack but that was not the reason for today's loss.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.2 -- He did well busying himself in the game but again his passes were some times sub par and this was clearly not his best.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- He had a presence all game beyond the own goal that he conceded and he suffered several fouls.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 6.0 -- Mikel was a shadow of himself today. He provided very little movement in his position nor did he provide the support for the advanced forwards. Late in the game, it was sad to watch him stand instead of moving into space for a colleague seeking an outlet. That he was rescued by the coach with a substitution was not a surprise.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 5.8 -- He may have been Nigeria's worst player on the day. This kid was becoming the MAN in the last few games but today he appeared overwhelmed by the game. It is the World Cup after all. Very early, his attempts at taking on defenders failed and his confidence went down hill.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.5 -- Although Moses suffered several fouls, he appeared to be the only real threat for Nigeria going forward. Unfortunately, his efforts did not help results all day.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.0 -- Jude was starved of service most of the day but he did little to find options to this problem. For Nigeria to do well Ighalo must have the needed service. He had just one shot all day and it was just a glancing header in the second half.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.1 -- Ahmed may not have produced a goal chance but he put up 110% effort, far more than you could write about several of his colleagues.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.2 -- Kelechi played only 20 minutes but he produced a shot and found Musa for a half chance. It was an effort that Ighalo could not produce in 70 minutes of play.

Simmy Nwankwo (13) -- X -- He did not do enough to be rated.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How Willing is Rohr to Make Difficult Decisions?

Gernot Rohr has so far demonstrated a consistent streak of conservatism as Nigeria's manager. However, with four consecutive games without a win, that consistency is facing a major test because in front of him is a game that will go a long way to decide whether his job as Nigeria's manager continues after the World Cup. Rohr, as he did in Burkina Faso, has stood firm with his preferred 4-3-2-1 formation. However, his experiment with the 3-5-2 had unexpectedly provided his team with some vigor against major opponents such as Argentina and England. Is he now willing to switch to that formation against Croatia next Saturday as the World Cup begins for Nigeria? That is the test.

But it is not just switching to a 3-5-2 which, on paper, appears to be a better match against Croatia than the 4-3-2-1. The real test is re-thinking the personnel for that formation instead of force-feeding his current personnel from the 4-3-2-1 into the 3-5-2. There is no doubt that he has a number of players able to flex into multiple positions but the question is how best can he maximize their values? Presently, here is how Rohr has attempted to fit players into the 3-5-2:

------------------------------------------Uzoho------------------------------------------

---------Balogun-----------------------Ekong----------------------Ogu---------------


-------------------Ndidi------------------------------Iwobi------------------------------

Ebuehi---------------------------------Mikel Obi-------------------------------Idowu

-------------------Ighalo-----------------------------Vic Moses-------------------------


Two major problems have arisen with the above but one has to acknowledge that the team has done well in it, compared to the team's use of Rohr's preferred 4-3-2-1. Here, preference simply refers to how often the manager has used each formation. In any case, one of the problems has been scoring and Ighalo and Moses upfront offer very little change. None of those two players is prolific and Moses tends more often than not to hold onto the ball longer than necessary. Secondly, he isn't physical in holding on to a forward position. Ighalo, holds up the ball and moves well behind the defense but is prone to poor finishing.

In the midfield, while Mikel and Iwobi are very good passers of the ball, Iwobi is more aggressive going forward, scores more, makes more valuable passes for scoring but is also turnover prone. Mikel is better in keeping possession and can make more accurate long passes and has the ability to recover the ball better. 

Can Rohr Pull the Strings and Would he?
It seems quite clear, that the jigsaw puzzle with the personnel in 3-5-2 is far from solved and with just a few days to the Croatia game, the question is whether Rohr is willing to tweak the personnel so it looks like this:

-----------------------------------------------Uzoho-----------------------------------------

------------Balogun-------------------------Ekong----------------------Ogu--------------

--------------------------Ndidi---------------------------Mikel Obi------------------------

Ebuehi-------------------------------------Iwobi---------------------------------Vic Moses

-------------------------------Ighalo-----------------------Iheanacho------------------------

Will Rohr move Mikel Obi to a deeper position in the middle and move Iwobi to a more advanced position given the characteristics that are already mentioned? Bear in mind that Mikel has stated publicly and several times that he prefers the more advanced position. Can Rohr put his feet down and make the switch any way? I doubt it or at least there is nothing to indicate that he will. Rohr's conservatism means that this change is still a long way off and may not be done during Rohr's managership of this team. Secondly, can he move Moses to the wing back position, a position (albeit on the right side) that Moses already plays at his club Chelsea? Again, I doubt it when one considers that Moses is not strong defensively when he plays for Nigeria but it is clear that he is capable of playing in that position and he provides a far better option than Idowu will ever provide. Then up front, Iheanacho can be offered some valuable minutes instead of the garbage minutes that he has recently received from the team. Yet, Iheanacho provides the best chance to score for Nigeria. He is far more clinical than any one else on the team, bar none.

Gernot Rohr is the manager. Gernot Rohr is the one faced with the hot seat on Saturday against Croatia. Gernot Rohr can make a big difference if he chooses to. The fact is: will he? 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Revelations in the Czech Game.....

The 0-1 loss to Czech Republic revealed quite a bit about the Nigerian team going into the World Cup. Of course, the bottomline is that the four-game non-winning streak must be a concern now with just a few days to the important World Cup game against Croatia. The Czech game had the feel of practice in front of a sparse audience. That the referee called the game after just 89 minutes, when there was a logical expectation for added time, all but underlined the type of game it was.

To be sure, Nigerians dominated possession as they should against the scrappy and overly physical Czech team. There was little to write home about the Czechs. They were overmatched but in the end they claimed a famous win over a technically superior Nigerian team. This certainly must be a fundamental concern for Nigeria and its Coach Gernot Rohr. The much hyped 3-5-2 formation was used today for the full 90 minutes and it reminded everyone that formations do not by themselves win games. Further, despite Nigeria's domination in possession it is unclear how good the Nigerian team is because the Czechs were so poor on the ball. Croatia will be vastly different, for sure.

As for the revelations, it is striking that Nigeria's strikers lack the appropriate timing to run into space for the dangerous ball. That Ighalo was called off sides several times and Iheanacho once points to an issue that Nigeria needs to fix fast or face a humiliating World Cup in the coming weeks. Then it was also surprising that Nigeria barely looked threatening in spite of numerous corner kicks that came its way. Multiple times, the ball was overhit. When it wasn't, it was difficult for Nigeria to win the aerial duel. Yet the Czechs had barely a sniff at Nigeria's end but yet it was with one of those kicks that they decided the game. These details in a football game -- the timing of runs, the set pieces, among others -- certainly will be deciding factors, as is usually the case, at the World Cup. It will not be a case of merely the formation. Not at all. Additionally, how many times did Iheanacho fail at a set piece to lift the ball appropriately to seek the advantage that Nwankwo provides in the air in those last few minutes? Zero.

What is alarming is that a Nigerian team that appeared quite clinical at the World Cup qualifiers is now struggling to find a way to score. In the last five games and three goals, the scoring has depended on a penalty kick,  a rebound, and an auspicious assist during a scramble. No neatly worked goal, no set-piece, nothing that shows a team creative at the offensive end.

But this really is not the time to give up hope. These are just preparatory games but going behind against Croatia has suddenly become a major issue to worry about. Gernot Rohr, indeed, has a tough road ahead of him and the team. Here is how I saw the individual play.

Francis Uzoho (23) - 6.0 -- He was quite average today after a high from the England game. This is what Nigeria must live with, it is a matter of growing pains. Uzoho is quite strong in the air but his ball distribution continues to be a question.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.2 -- This game was a slight improvement on the England game but that is not stating much. He is getting comfortable on the ball but his once solid partnership with Ekong in the middle is showing some cracks that were evident in the opening half. Today, it was a partnership on the right side of a three-men defense.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.2 -- Ekong was as good as always. The confidence and the assurance that he will present the last ditch effort has not wavered. It was nothing spectacular today but then again the Czechs did very little going forward. 

John Ogu (19) -- 6.5 -- Ogu is certainly showing a lot on the left side of the defense but I still worry about his lack of pace. Today, he was again good and his abilities on the ball provide both confidence and options for the pass. 

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0 -- Shehu has increasingly become unsettled with the competition provided by Tyronne Ebuehi. Again, he was subpar. Shehu surely can play much better but the reality is that he has not shown it in several games now.

Wilfred Ndidi (13) -- 6.1 -- I am glad to see this guy back and also in  his usual shirt number. However, it was clear that he has to work his way back. It was reported that he would play just an hour but he ended up playing the entire game. His game was not top notch today.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 7.0 -- Mikel clearly is the pass master. His ability was expressed against the Czechs as he bossed the middle. However, he (as well as others) in the middle must work out ways to make the quicker passes through the channels for the strikers instead of staying on the ball a tad longer.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.8 -- Iwobi has clearly become more comfortable playing for Nigeria. He has now put up a strong list of consecutive games where he was one of the team's best players. He is not afraid to seek the ball and he usually makes the right decisions. He is one of the players that is aggressive with his passes.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 6.2 -- As a wing back, Idowu provides several advantages going forward but he just must hit his crosses better. He had an opportunity to score today but failed to hit his volley well.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.0 -- Another routine and average day at the office. His timing of runs is certainly off and he is routinely accumulating off sides calls. In certain cases, he needs to trust that the ball will come through the space instead of running ahead of the pass decision.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.8 -- Victor Moses was virtually a non-factor against England. Today, he was far more energetic and involved. It may be the sign that he is getting ready. However, he was surprised by the ball deep in the six-yard box and failed to take advantage (66th).

Tyrone Ebuehi (21) -- 6.3 -- Ebuehi has now outplayed Shehu in consecutive games. He may find himself starting against Croatia. His speed and decision making are increasingly evident. 

Simmy Nwankwo (22) -- 6.0 -- Simmy had to drop deep to get a feel of the ball. Apart from that, he presented no real threat in front of goal in the few minutes that he was on duty.

Uwa Echiejile (3) -- 6.0 -- Uwa was back on the field after making the squad but it is notable that he presented nothing of the attacking presence that preceded his entrance. However, he made no major mistakes either. 

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi's two opportunities on set pieces were poorly taken. He was unable to lift the ball to take advantage of the aerial presence of Nwankwo and instead had the front defender win the ball. He did nothing more in his appearance.

Ahmed Musa (7) - X -- Ahmed did nothing remarkable for the few minutes that he was on the field 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Nigeria v England: My Observations

My observations are not focused on tactics or individual players but simply on how ready and prepared this team is. Yes, you may argue how that can be done without talking on tactics and individual technical issues. I will not argue that point with you but I believe this is not about all that -- it is about how psychologically ready this team is with the World Cup a couple of weeks away.

The first half of the England game was horrendous but even the second half has serious questions. Here, I point to four key issues that I observed.

1. All the Talk About Team Spirit in Camp Means Diddly if the On-Field Display is Poor. Before the start of this game, Skipper Mikel Obi spoke volumes about team spirit in camp and having the best preparation for a World Cup. Yet, it was awful watching them in that opening half today. The gulf in play was ocean-wide. Nigeria was chasing shadows all first half. It was an embarrassment.  Fortunately, it was just an international friendly. However, it was the worst display of the Nigerian national team since the 1980s, as far as I am concerned (First half).

2. Learned that Rohr Could Stamp his authority. After  the total embarrassment in the opening half, it was good to learn that Gernot Rohr could wreak havoc on the players and team. Perhaps we will soon learn what he told them at half time but his substitution of four players before the start of the second half spoke volumes. It was unusual for him. The substitutions were not about giving people playing time. He took off players whose first half displays were horrific. The only one spared may have been Victor Moses who was later taken off. Hopefully, Rohr changes the line up in the next game against Czech Republic to continue the message that you must give your all when you wear the Nigerian jersey and step onto that field.

3. The Few that Stepped Up. Alex Iwobi, Francis Uzoho, and John Ogu came to play. In my opinion, they were the few that were ready for this game. I had always read Ogu as slow and yes he is. However, today his ball recovery was impeccable and his defensive game was top notch. As for Uzoho, there is no question, as I stated after the Congo game, that he deserves the starting shirt. There should be no debate on this matter. Today, he stepped up. Yes, you may argue about the second goal but how about the saves that kept the margin respectable in that awful opening? It is best not to talk about the rest.

4. Can Nigeria Improve in Two Weeks? Perhaps, but the reality is that the team display in the last three games and especially today raises major questions about Gernot Rohr and his management. Make no mistake about this, friendly or no friendly. That first half display was just atrocious. If he really hopes to have a memorable World Cup then he must step up with work on this team not simply on its technical and tactical ability but on its psychological readiness for each game.

Those are just my observations. I really have nothing else to add.

Monday, May 28, 2018

After Congo: Who Has to Worry?

After the game against Congo DR, there are certainly a few players who have to worry about their status as the Nigerian team gradually heads to Russia for the World Cup. Playing before a capacity crowd today in Port Harcourt created a good atmosphere for the team but the poor state of the field hampered cohesive play. What resulted was a disjointed display, particularly in the midfield. One note is that this 1-1 tie with the Congolese was the first time the Nigeria National Team A failed to win a game in Port Harcourt.

In any case, the result does not matter as much as the opportunity to evaluate the players. To be honest, it is not the easiest of decisions for the coaching crew as several players fighting for a spot to Russia did not exactly distinguish themselves from competitors for those spots. 

Francis Uzoho in goal, however, displayed why he should be the starting goalkeeper. For the first time, he put up an astounding piece of work in-between Nigeria's goal posts. There should no longer be a debate as to who the No. 1 goalkeeper is. Not after this game against Congo. Uzoho was Nigeria's best player today.

At left back, the battle is between Ola Aina and the veteran Elderson Echiejile. Brian Idowu had long sealed the starting spot. So how did Elderson and Ola do? Elderson started the game and was just average although a rash tackle earned him a caution. Ola Aina, in the second half, showed more adventure going forward but then his problems in the air persist. Furthermore, his passes are not the best and he seemed to lose enthusiasm after conceding a needless penalty that led to the tie. This is going to be a tough decision for Rohr who is likely to drop Aina or Echiejile.

At the striker position? Well, there was a lot of hype and hollering about Simy Nwankwo before this game. He played well at the start of each half but then faded as each half went on. To my surprise, Junior Lokosa played extremely well in the opening half and may have threatened the chances of Nwankwo. Although, in the second half, Lokosa was notably quiet before being hauled off.

Here is how I rated each player (0-10).

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 7.0 -- Today, Uzoho established clearly why he should be No.1. The debate should be over from now on. He was off his line quickly, played well on his feet as the last line of defense and controlled the aerial balls easily. Then he saved some point blank shots.

Tyronne Ebuehi (21) - 6.1 - Ebuehi had a good first half even though he was visibly tired and in the second half it appeared that he cramped and had to be replaced. Is this a fitness question? Perhaps.

Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.0 -- Elderson did nothing much that was notable but was steady. His rash tackle after just 21 minutes should count against him as it was a poor decision way off any danger. However, he made one spectacular stop in a 1 v 1 situation just before the half.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.5 -- Strong display by Ekong on this day but his slip deep in the box early  in the first half nearly presented a goal to the Congolese until Uzoho stuck out a foot to save. Today, he opened his scoring account for Nigeria.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 5.8 -- He was quite poor and unusually quiet. Maybe he was sick or unfit but his display was just subpar.

Ogenyi Onazi (cpt-17) -- 6.2 -- Onazi was busy and did well to win several balls but he still has a problem distributing the ball accurately.

Joel Obi (25) -- 6.0 -- Joel started like a house on fire being every place and in good time but he gradually faded.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- Etebo, in the middle, is good news but only if you want short passes all over the place. Beyond that, he rarely plays a really dangerous pass forward. That was exactly his first half today. In the second, he moved a bit to the left before Musa came in and out wide he proved more valuable.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi was busy and ended up with the assist on Nigeria's goal. However, his passes are not accurate and his reaction defensively, when Nigeria does not have the ball, has to be a concern.

Junior Lokosa (15) -- 6.2 -- Lokosa was a surprise! I expected very little but his ability to protect the ball, to play the pass, and his confidence was evident. Lokosa, periodically, drifted to the center where he plays for Kano Pillars. He had a good debut but his second half was largely uneventful before he was replaced.

Simeon Nwankwo (26) -- 6.0 -- For a man as tall as Nwankwo, he has some neat footwork. He hit the post early in the first half and also came close with a header early in the second half. However, he seemed to fade late in each half. If he makes this team he would need to show more aggressive pressing on the ball. On one occasion he was and it almost produced a score from Etebo.

Substitutes
Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.4 -- Iwobi came in and his passes made a huge difference. Additionally, he came close to scoring with a quick shot after the Congolese tied the game.

Ola Aina (2) -- 6.0 -- For Aina, the review is mixed. He started by providing much more attacking presence than Elderson did in the opening half. However, he gave up a needless penalty and it went down hill for him with stray passes.

Kenneth Omeruo (4) -- 6.0 -- Kenneth provided a stable display in the middle and had much better presence than Balogun did in the opening half. It is nice to watch him play like this after some poor displays in recent times.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.2 -- Ahmed's speed is just too dangerous for defenses. Twice he used it to shake up the Congolese but he displayed, also, some fantastic technical skill and was present in the recovery phase as well.

Shehu Abdullahi (12) -- X -- Shehu came in to replace an injured Ebuehi but is not evaluated because of too few minutes on the field.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Junior and Simy Needing Prayers and Minutes

We now have a very good idea who Manager Gernot Rohr plans to take to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, barring injury. His decision to name 30 players for the World Cup camp has done little to disguise his final list. In reality, the only unknown is injury and Rohr's decision at just two positions. Rohr's tendencies, from his first day of appointment in Nigeria, is to be conservative and that has increased the predictability of Nigeria's final squad to Russia.

Only Two Spots Still Open
It is quite clear that 21 of the invited 30 players are already on Rohr's final list to Russia. The nine left are the likes of Dele Ajiboye, Stephen Eze, Ola Aina, Elderson Echiejile, Uche Agbo, Mikel Agu, John Ogu, Simy Nwankwo, and Junior Lokosa. It is among those that the final cut of seven players will come. But even then, we already know the five that are on the list of certain cuts. Those five are Dele Ajiboye, Stephen Eze, Uche Agbo, Mikel Agu, and Junior Lokosa. Of that list, Mikel Agu is probably the most painful when one considers that he was favored as a substitute in the key World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon. So what happened? The fact is he never took the chance firmly and John Ogu has since moved ahead of him in the pecking order. But even Ogu is not quite safe and we will explain in a moment.

No matter how this camp goes, it is certain that one notable player will be cut. Veterans Echiejile and John Ogu may face the cut but both of them can also be safe. How? First, they both can be safe if Rohr decides that Ola Aina, a relatively new member of the team, stays home in favor of Echiejile and if Rohr saves Ogu's blushes by considering Ahmed Musa as the third option at the most advanced forward position which in turn opens up a midfield spot for Ogu. 

Needing Prayers and Minutes: Junior and Simy
While it seems obvious that the invitations sent to Dele Ajiboye and Stephen Eze are meant to offer them a mere camp experience, it is quite different for the invitations extended to advanced forwards Junior Lokosa and Simy Nwankwo. I am convinced that Ajiboye has no chance to dethrone Rohr's favorite top three goalkeepers -- Francis Uzoho, Ike Ezenwa, and Daniel Akpeyi. All three will be at the World Cup ahead of Ajiboye, bar injury. If Ajiboye was being offered a fair chance to make the team he surely would have been involved in the March internationals. That he was not speaks volumes. He is now invited to keep the other three goalkeepers on their toes. Nothing else is expected from him.

Stephen Eze's invitation is similar. Although he was called up for the March internationals but he never played a minute of the two internationals. He is simply an injury insurance. That is not all bad considering that Leon Balogun is often hurt but it seems to me that he will not be the first choice to replace Balogun in the squad if Balogun was to go down. That spot is likely to go to one of Elderson and Ola Aina who is cut.

But the invitations to Junior Lokosa and Simy Nwankwo present an entirely different scenario. One of them could directly make the World Cup squad. Rohr has made no secret of his search for a third option at the most advanced striker position. He already has Ighalo and Iheanacho but who is the third? He has tried Ideye, Nwaekeme, Junior Ajayi, and Gabriel Okechukwu who all traditionally play in that spot. Obviously, Rohr has discarded all of them as is demonstrated on their non-invitation to this camp. Next up are Lokosa and Nwankwo. However, they need game minutes against Congo DR and England in order to directly make the squad. It will just be one of them and, thus, they are both in contest for this single spot that is open. But that this spot is open does not guarantee that one of them will be the guy. That is where they need prayers and not just performance. Rohr is perfectly able to fill that third spot by moving one of his wide midfielders -- Ahmed Musa or Alex Iwobi into the advanced position. He already did that in games with Iwobi (v Argentina) and Musa (v Serbia). Thus, that is a fall back position that Rohr is willing to use. It is also a decision that veteran John Ogu will prefer because such a decision grants him space on the team as a midfielder.

But what do Simy Nwankwo and Junior Lokosa bring to the table as the third option in the advanced position? Lokosa is currently scoring at a pace in Nigeria's league where he is on the verge of obliterating the current Nigerian league scoring record. It is at a scorching pace. Those who have watched him closely vouch for his hold up ability and predatory instincts but they also point to a poor first touch. That weakness can be quite haunting, especially at the World Cup level. Simy Nwankwo, on the other hand, uses his significant height advantage to bring a tactical option to the table, especially on set pieces that is valuable at a World Cup. Importantly, it is a value that Nigeria's other two strikers -- Iheanacho and Ighalo -- cannot offer. However, both Nwankwo and Lokosa both need enough minutes in the upcoming international friendlies to demonstrate their value or force Rohr to consider the option of Musa or Iwobi.

Conclusion
Surely, Nigeria's 23-player squad to the 2018 World Cup is almost decided with 21 of the places already taken, bar injuries. Nine of the players invited for camp are basically fighting for two spots on that roster. To be definitive, that fight for spots is decidedly between four players as five others are merely invited as training fodder.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Open Letter to Nigerians on Gernot Rohr with June in the Horizon

Dear Nigerians,

I write this letter because I know how hopeful you are with the 2018 World Cup around the corner. I know that you are hoping that the Nigerian squad will surpass the achievement of the 1994 team that finished in the Top 16 but saw a team that it humiliated (Bulgaria) finish among the Top 4. It was a year when Nigeria could have accomplished more and perhaps a last minute bravado by Roberto Baggio had much to do with the fact that Nigeria was eliminated then, so early. That the 1994 team was voted the most exciting of the teams at that World Cup tournament was not enough consolation.

But why does that history matter now? Is Gernot Rohr likely to do more for Nigeria in June? Those, surely, are the questions that linger in your minds. First let me assure you that the 1994 event matters? It has set a threshold by which every succeeding team is now judged. Finishing Top 16 is no longer the goal for us. I know that you bite your lips with the fact that Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana have all done better with each finishing Top 8 at a World Cup. Thus, we know Top 8 isn't beyond our capabilities. In fact, our aim should be to surpass a Top 8 finish. So, why not Top 4? After all, South Korea reached the Top 4 in 2002 and would we accept a second fiddle to the Koreans? I think not.

I know that deep down you wish to win the World Cup. After all, no one should be going to Russia without playing to win the whole thing. I do not care that there is Brazil, Germany, Spain, and France. We have battled with some of them in the past and we have, on occasion, matched them pace for pace, strength for strength, guile for guile. Thus, they cannot be the only ones hoping to win the World Cup. We have hopes too.

But let the truth be told. Does Gernot Rohr give us the belief that we can compete with the best in the world? Rohr has created a team that generally grinds out a result. It is not a team, like in 1994, that dominates possession and play. Our strength, under Rohr, lies elsewhere. So as you watch the 2018 World Cup do not expect Nigeria to dominate Croatia and the like. What we are is a counter attacking team that expects to fly down the opponents' defensive flanks when we recover the ball. Thus, Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, and Ahmed Musa are key to what we do. It is on them that Rohr depends. But it also means that our defensive midfielders -- Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi -- carry a lot of responsibility. They are the ones who must recover the ball for the counter attacks to work.

But without a dominating team we should worry about our ability to score and our ability to keep the other team from scoring. It is that simple and yet those are two areas that Gernot Rohr has not made us confident in the last few months. With Nigerians scoring almost every match day in Europe, one is lulled into the dream that suiting up an effective striker should be a piece of cake. Yet, Rohr has not found a consistent striker. Except for Kelechi Iheanacho, who Rohr prefers to keep on the bench., who else do we have? Yes, I do realize that Jude Ighalo remains Rohr's favorite striker in spite of his poor conversion rate. Meanwhile, young Nigerian strikers in Europe are hitting the headlines and Rohr has simply ignored them. Who no know, go know for Russia.

In goal, Nigerians are forced to sweat it out in panic whenever the other team nears our box. Since Ikeme went on a sick bed, Rohr has yet to find a capable replacement. I am certain none of you has a modicum of confidence in Akpeyi, Ezenwa, Uzoho, and Alampasu. Yet they are the names that Rohr continues to mention with a few weeks to the World Cup. Vincent Enyeama, our certified best, is posting on Instagram and Twitter of his daily work after a long period of injury. He is already playing for Lille's reserves but yet no recall by Rohr.

I write these things because it is not like we have a dominating team but even this average team may yet find it difficult in Russia if its manager does not act. The opportunity to surpass the 1994 team is glidingly passing us by when there is time to make amends and make this team much stronger that it currently is. What is there to lose giving Enyeama a try out? What is there to lose giving several young Nigerian strikers a tryout? That is the question that Gernot Rohr should answer before a great opportunity is blown.

Fellow Nigerians, this is crunch time and we are at the eleventh hour. I do not know about you but I must assume that you are at a point of despair. The March friendlies showed us what may be awaiting us in Russia. The taste is sour and I do not like it. For me, enough written for the wise. The cards are on Rohr's table.

Your sincerely,
Concerned Nigerian.