By Sulaiman Alao:
In my previous article on this column, I warned Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr not to bank on players’ motivation alone as Nigeria seek to clinch the sole ticket in Group B of the African World Cup qualification series ahead of rivals Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia towards Russia 2018. As the Super Eagles get set to kick-start their qualification bid with a trip to Zambia on October 9, I’m personally convinced that our qualification hopes will largely depend on the forms and feet of certain players who are all interestingly, plying their trades in the English Premier League. Simply put, Nigeria’s qualification fate appears to be resting on the shoulders of Mikel Obi, Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Carl Ikeme, all of whom I refer to as the ‘England Gang’.
To emphasise the importance of the England Gang, all the eight players were named in the 23-man list released last week by Rohr for the forthcoming game against Zambia with the exclusion of Odion Ighalo who was granted permission to attend his father’s burial in Nigeria on the eve of the match in Ndola.
It is a positive coincidence for Nigeria to have most of her key players plying their football trade in the same country under the tutelage of some of the best managers in the world and coach Rohr will do well to take maximum advantage, by exploiting the close ties and EPL experiences of these players for the greater benefit of the Eagles.
The importance of the Eagles England Gang is further emphasized by the fact that four or five of these players, barring injuries, are guaranteed of picking the starting shirts whenever the Eagles assemble for a key game and we should not lose sight of the fact that the captain and the assistant captain of the team are also among this group of players. Rohr’s professionalism will be highly required here as the German tactician will need to manage the egos of these players as well as devising the right tactical formation to ensure they deliver for the Eagles. Of the players that make up the lot, Ikeme and Mikel have their work cut out distinctly with little or no competition as goalkeeper and midfielder. Moses and Musa are forwards with diverse abilities as they can operate from the flanks. Ighalo, Iheanacho and Success are all-out-strikers while Iwobi though a striker too, is best suited playing behind the strikers. Rohr must therefore ensure none of these players are played out of their desired positions, if the Eagles are to get the best of their services.
A closer look at the players that made up the England Gang reveals to a large extent, the fact that they are blessed with experience, skills and creativity that are capable of unlocking any defense and getting the much needed goals. The grit and resilience needed to give the team a solid balance will have to come from the rest of the players in the squad. Rohr therefore needs to build his team around the right combination of players from the England Gang and complement them with other players from the rest of the squad to get a balanced and solid team. How well he does this in his first crucial game against Zambia will go a long way to brighten or jeopardize our qualification chances for Russia 2018.
With Nigerians in ‘safe mode’ celebrating the nation’s 56th Independence anniversary, nothing short of Eagles victory against the Chipolopolos will suffice to put smiles on our faces and ease the tension of economic recession currently plaguing the country.