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.