By Ijeoma Okigbo
When the Super Eagles of Nigeria file out on June 16 against the Vatreni of Croatia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, they could be for spectators “a beautiful bride’’.
Rated as the youngest team in the tournament, first African side to qualify without losing a game in the qualifiers and with a game to spare, and arguably adorned with the finest jersey in the Coupe de Mundial, the Super Eagles will be making their sixth appearance at football’s biggest fiesta.
Away from the accolades and facing the possibility of a first ever quarter-finals spot, the team’s handler, Gernot Rohr, seems not to be satisfied with his 23 man squad.
The team’s performance, following its six pre-World Cup friendly matches ahead of the tournament, leaves questions about Nigeria’s readiness for the game, having won two, drew one and lost three.
It is even more worrisome when only few days to the tournament, Rohr said on the team’s twitter handle @ngsupereagles that at the moment the team was not ready.
“We have nine days to be ready for our first match against Croatia, as at today, we are not ready,’’ the German said after the team’s 0-1 loss to Narodak of Czech Republic in Austria on June 6.
He, however, said he was more focused on the tournament proper.
“I am not sad because of this result. The result that matters will be in Russia,’’ the coach added.
But why are Rohr’s Super Eagles not ready, few days to the event’s kick-off?
Looking into the various departments of the team there are some ex-internationals’ opinions on them.
In Goalkeeping, since Nigeria’s qualification for the World Cup, Rohr has held on the challenge of having an experienced first-choice goalkeeper for the Mundial.
With the absence of Carl Ikeme, following an unfortunate diagnosis of leukemia, home-based Ikechukwu Ezenwa deputised between the sticks for the most part of 2017, helping Nigeria qualify for the summer tournament.
Ezenwa’s obvious lack of composure and poor ball handling and Daniel Akpeyi’s errors in the friendly against the La Albiceleste of Argentina, brought the duo under fans’ criticism.
This paved the way for 19-year-old Francis Uzoho.
After Uzoho’s performance against Argentina, Rohr sent a goalkeeper trainer to work with the Deportivo La Coruna Team B goalkeeper.
The teenager remained the best choice throughout the team’s friendlies, capping six times for the national team and his progress caught the eye of the team’s former goalie, Ike Shoronmu.
“I am impressed with what I have seen throughout the friendlies. Uzoho has the height, good reflexes and as time goes on, he will improve.
“He is very young and has a lot of prospects. The other goalkeepers are good as well but it seems the team has decided to settle with the young lad.
“We can only wish the team the best,’’ the team’s former goalkeeper trainer said.
In the Defence, Abdullahi Shehu enjoyed the right-back position throughout the qualifying series but the introduction of Tryonne Ebuehi has opened up real competition for the spot.
In the Central Defence, the once-dependable partnership of William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun, commonly described as the “Oyibo Wall’’, has been faulted by many, including former Super Eagles defender, Waidi Akanni.
Akanni told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the pairing of the duo (William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun) at the heart of the national team’s defence might not be Nigeria’s best option in Russia.
“I have never been too comfortable with them. I am happy Kenneth Omeruo has come back and I think he should give them stiff competition.
“So far, Ekong and Balogun have not been playing well together like they did during the qualifiers. With Omeruo jumping into the fray, I think we will have a better defence line.
“The introduction of Chelsea defender, Omeruo, who replaced Balogun in the second half of the Nigeria/England friendly stabilised the defence and warded off England’s attack, while the Eagles were two goals down.
“In the end, it will be between Ekong, Omeruo and Balogun.
“But I am happy Omeruo, to an extent, has done enough to show the coach that he could compete for a place in our central defence,’’ Akanni added.
He also said that there were still areas where the coach had to work on.
“Basically, we need to work on the left back and then, of course, one or two players in the midfield. Once we get a good combination, I think we will do well,’’ Akanni said.
The team’s midfield boasts of experienced skipper Mikel Obi, Russia-based Bryan Idowu, Ogenyj Onazi and recuperating Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi, yet a former Green Eagles player Bitrus Bewarang wants Eagles’ midfield to be mobile.
“I feel we need to get the right combination in our midfield. We need speed and more mobility in the midfield so that the attack can function better.
“I think the coach has been trying to build a team and I believe that now he has seen all the players from the various friendly matches.
“With few days left before Nigeria’s first match, I am sure what is next for him will be to stabilise the team.
“Hopefully, by the time we play our first match on Saturday against Croatia, we will be able to get the result we desire,’’ Bewarang, a former Super Eagles Assistant Coach, said.
However, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) Technical Committee member is optimistic that the team would perform well in Russia.
“As a coach, I always believe that we should expect the best from our players. Our players under Rohr have been doing well in terms of passion and dedication.
“That is why everybody has the confidence that they will do better than in previous competitions and I believe that too,’’ Bewarang added.
A couple of football fans think that starting China-based Odion Ighalo may not grind out the best result as compared to the introduction of Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi.
In all, various lapses still exist in the team, while we can only hope that the squad improves speedily before their first game as the NFF Secretary-General, Mohammed Sanusi, expressed optimism of good outing.
Sanusi wants fans not to judge the team based on friendly games played, adding that “the results don’t really matter because I know our boys were not at their best yet.
“There is no cause for alarm; the Super Eagles will bounce back.’’
The NFF scribe added that the federation had done their part in preparing the team for the World Cup, and that it was now left for them to reciprocate the gesture by getting results in Russia.
Nigeria will play against the Albiceleste of Argentina and Iceland’s Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys) in the same Group D of the competition.