Sunday, 3 June 2018

Russia 2018: Another World Cup, Another Experiment By AFOLABI GAMBARI

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It would seem that the Super Eagles are attending a World Cup finals for the first time ever as they prepare for the Russia 2018 event kicking off on June 14. Yet, it is the sixth finals for Nigeria after the country’s debut at USA ’94, having missed only the Germany 2006 finals in succession.

Everything looks new, if not even complicated, although officials at the Football House in Abuja always assure that ‘all is well’.
Nigeria qualified to Russia from an African group that comprised World Cup regular attendees Cameroon and Algeria, as well as Zambia whose knack for felling giants is renowned. But it ended as a virtual piece of cake for the Eagles as they secured the group’s only ticket with a game to spare.
 Not that the team fell apart thereafter. It soon regrouped to defeat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly game after which it edged Poland 1-0 in another friendly encounter.
But a 2-0 defeat to Serbia in yet another friendly raised the alarm bell; like sparking off pressing the panic button as it seemed to dawn on all concerned that Nigeria’s readiness was being exaggerated. Uncertainty soon crept into the fray with regard to how far the Eagles could go in Russia where they must get a clear win against first opponent Croatia to have a realistic chance of advancing to the knockout stages, although they still need good results from other opponents Iceland and Argentina in the group.
Statistically, the Eagles haven’t fared so well in goal poaching as to send fears into opponents. Indeed, there is the absence of a potent striker, a situation that has imposed scoring responsibility on virtually all the players. On the face value, this anomaly portends great advantage at overcoming opponents in battle. But still, it creates anxiety as the team approaches the World Cup, especially when the scoring job demands exquisite execution at critical times. A new goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, is being propped as number one after the regular two others, Ikechukwu Ezinwa and Daniel Akpehi, were adjudged by Coach Gernot Rohr as falling short.

Yet, Uzoho, who debuted in a friendly against Argentina in November, has conceded five goals in five games.
When the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) released the provisional 30-man Eagles’ list for the World Cup early in May, the anxiety was inflamed, somewhat, as questions began to fly as to whether a reliable 23-man final squad could emerge from the long list. Suddenly, analysts began to zero in on captain John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Wilfred Ndidi and Odion Ighalo as the only five players that can take the Eagles far in Russia. But, five players out of 23? Scary, to say the very least.
It took a hurriedly assembled Super Eagles B team, comprising mainly players in the domestic League and a sprinkle of foreign-based players that faced Atletico Madrid in a friendly game in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State on May 22 for Nigerians and even the NFF to realise that the 30-man list earlier submitted to FIFA could have been fortified had the Eagles’ scouts searched broadly for motivational players. About five players among the Eagles that lost 3-2 to Atletico in the Uyo game were adjudged as suitable for the main Eagles’ team heading to Russia. But it was too little too late as FIFA said the list could not be altered to favour the freshly discovered players. The final 23-man team finally emerged on June 3, 24 hours after the Eagles lost 2-1 to England at Wembley Stadium and barely a day before the FIFA deadline for the final list submission on June 4, after which the Nigerians proceeded to Austria to engage the Czech Republic in their last friendly billed for June 6 before moving into Russia to await the June 16 World Cup battle with Croatia.
As things stand at the moment, the Eagles would have to make the most of the obvious inadequacy of the squad in Russia while aiming to spring surprises in the rather tough but slippery group.
The football authorities have not helped matters, at any rate. Despite the Eagles not being newcomers at the World Cup, Coach Gernot Rohr, who is, however, attending his first finals as a gaffer, would not reveal a realistic expectation of his team. “We are not favourites,” the German is often quoted as saying. Nor would the NFF, apparently to avoid raising the fans’ adrenalin too high.

Except for the 2002 and 2010 finals where Nigeria got knocked out in the group stage, the country has not gone beyond the second round in the other three finals in 1994, 1998 and 2014. So, why not aspire for the quarterfinals in Russia, if only to equal the record attained by Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana in the competition? But this Eagles’ team is at best experimental, ironically even as a good number of the players are either at their peak or getting closer.

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