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