The main event will kick off in a couple of weeks but for Nigeria Saturday’s meeting with England is more than a warm-up. For some Super Eagles, at least, the heat is really on. Unlike Gareth Southgate, Nigeria’s manager, Gernot Rohr, has not settled on the squad that he will take to the World Cup, preferring initially to name a 30-man panel before ditching surplus players in instalments as if trying to lend his selection process some of the suspense and agony of a reality TV show.
Four players were evicted after Monday’s 1-1 draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo, while a fifth, the Gent winger Moses Simon, was ruled out by a hip injury, although Rohr is giving him as much time as possible to recover. The manager will announce the last cuts to his squad after the England match. There could hardly be a bigger incentive to perform well at Wembley.
Rohr is probably not doing this for dramatic effect. Rather his hesitation reflects uncertainty over a couple of roles, particularly at full-back, where the manager has admitted doubts linger. Ola Aina, the 21-year-old Chelsea player who spent last season on loan at Hull, may have marked his own card by making the clumsy tackle that enabled Congo to equalise from a penalty but, on the other hand, his ability to play on either flank may earn him inclusion ahead of either Elderson Echiejile or Brian Idowu, who can function only on the left.
Aside from places on the plane, there may still be spots up for grabs in the starting lineup for Nigeria’s first World Cup match, against Croatia on 16 June. Most obviously, and like England, the goalkeeping question seems unresolved.
Rohr’s options following Carl Ikeme’s leukaemia diagnosis and the retirement of Vincent Enyeama are not especially compelling. It will be fascinating to see who starts in goal at Wembley. For recent friendlies the manager has put his trust in Francis Uzoho, who is undoubtedly talented but still raw, as should be expected from a 19-year-old whose main club action has been with Deportivo La Coruña’s second team. The other options – Enyimba’s Ikechukwu and Daniel Akpeyi of Chippa United – are more experienced but have previously shown they are not above rashness.
Those worries aside, Rohr knows most of the side he will count on in Russia and has good cause to be confident of progressing out of a formidable group that also features Argentina and Iceland, thereby fulfilling the ambition he expressed at his first press conference after being appointment Nigeria manager in August 2016.
Nigeria made light work of a tough qualifying group, sweeping above Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia with a style that suddenly had Rohr feeling the need to dampen expectations. “Unfortunately, ambitions are a little excessive here, as Nigeria must reach the semi-finals, at least,” he said shortly after securing qualification.
Nigeria swelled expectations further by beating Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in November, although a recent defeat by Serbia offset that a tad. Nonetheless, the victory over Argentina, whom Nigeria will face in their last group game, was an encouraging demonstration of the qualities displayed during qualification. This is a strong, dynamic, united and skilful side featuring a potent mix of youth and experience. The Super Eagles will test England.
Premier League fans who do not keep tabs on Nigeria will find them intriguing visitors. Not only will this be a chance to check out Leon Balogun, the centre-back who will play for Brighton next season after signing in May from Mainz and who, under Rohr, has developed such a strong central defensive partnership with William Troost-Ekong that Nigeria fans refer to the pair as the Oyinbo Wall. It will also provide an opportunity to gain a fresh appreciation of Mikel John Obi and Odion Ighalo, players widely dismissed as washed-up after leaving the Premier League for China last year.
Neither featured against DR Congo, having just arrived from Asia, but are expected to play at Wembley, where they will hope to show they remain indispensable to their national team. Mikel pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role in a way he seldom did during 11 successful years at Chelsea. One of the players he regularly supplies is Victor Moses, whose storming raids down the right were one of the most thrilling features of Nigeria’s qualifying campaign, during which Moses was the top scorer.
Igahlo, meanwhile, remains Nigeria’s first-choice striker. But a valuable alternative has recently emerged: Simy Nwankwo, aged 26, was given his international debut against Congo and continued the form when he scored six goals in eight matches for Crotone in Serie A season. He offers Nigeria a new dimension, as at 6ft 6in he carries an aerial threat and has the strength to serve as an effective fulcrum up front while also smart and nimble. He may be coming to the boil at exactly the right time.
This Article was first published @www.Theguardian.com