By Babatunde Alao:
ONE month from now, precisely on September 1st and 5th, Nigeria will file out against perennial rivals Cameroon in their double-header of 2018 World Cup qualifiers. It promises to be the biggest matches for the Super Eagles this year and the results will most likely decide Nigeria’s World Cup fate – and that of the Indomitable Lions of course.
Nigeria will host the first leg in Uyo while Cameroon with host the return leg in Yaounde. Two difficult games with the space of 5 days!
Having failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations for the second consecutive time, and with the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in view, Nigeria contracted a new coach in the person of Gernot Rohr which paid prompt dividend as the Super Eagles currently and comfortably sit atop the Group B table with maximum 6 points from the first two games in the group that also has Zambia and Algeria. Ordinarily, Nigeria should not be losing any sleep in the World Cup race having opened a massive 4 points gap over Cameroon with just 2 points while Zambia and Algeria has 1 point each. But it is still early days and despite the obvious advantage, Nigerians now have cause to exercise real concern going by recent forms of both the Super Eagles and the Indomitable Lions.
Firstly, Cameroon surprisingly emerged as African Champions at the last Cup of Nations in Gabon. That triumph has suddenly galvanized the Lions from slumber while several top players who had earlier turned down invitations to play at the Cup of Nations now eager to stage a return to the team for the World Cup qualifiers – that Nigeria is the next opponent is an added motivation.
Secondly, the Indomitable Lions also gained further quality match experiences by featuring in the FIFA Confederations Cup held in Russia. And even though the African Champions were the weeping boys in the group made up of Germany (eventual Champions), Chile (finalist) and Australia (surprise team), the tournament provided good opportunity for the Indomitable Lions to bond and also try out other players and strategies which will no doubt come in handy when they confront Nigeria in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers. Besides, the Lions have proverbially tasted blood at the Confederations Cup in Russia and will fight to the death to return there for the World Cup.
While Cameroon have gained in confidence in recent times as enumerated above, Nigeria on the other hand, were brought down to earth by a 2-0 home loss to visiting South Africa in the first game of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers billed for Cameroon. It was the first defeat the Super Eagles will suffer at the hands of the Bafana Bafana, and the fact that it happened in front of their home fans and while riding on the seeming invincibility of their form in the World Cup qualifiers dealt a massive blow on the confidence of the Nigerian team.
All of a sudden, the Super Eagles were under pressure with Nigerians calling on the authorities and the coach to take a closer look at the team. Coach Rohr’s largely experimental team devoid of the experiences of captain Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and influential goalkeeper Carl Ikeme were greatly exposed by the South Africans. And while Nigerians are still trying to put the bitter defeat behind them, the sad news of Ikeme being diagnosed with Leukemia further worsened the Eagles' psyche. Lots of goodwill and support have deservedly been directed at Ikeme both at home and abroad (his club, Wolverhampton Wanderers specifically) with prayers by millions of Nigerians for God to see him through the health challenge.
As things stand, Ikeme’s unavailability heightened by the loss to South Africa, have exposed the soft underbelly of the Super Eagles and raised lots of questions regarding every department of the team from the goalkeeping, defence, midfield and attack. Who can ably replace Ikeme in goal? Can the Eagles defence withstand the Indomitable Lions firepower? Is the Eagles midfield strong enough? Is Kelechi Iheanacho capable to lead the attack against Cameroon? Can Eagles cope with the Lions’ renowned physicality? etc. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Nigeria Football Federation technical and development committee Chris Green is already talking tough that Cameroon don’t scare Nigeria. But just like ace musician Adekunle Gold said in one of his songs; ‘Enu o se’ meaning ‘Talk is cheap’, Nigeria must not only be ready to talk the talk, but we must be ready to walk the walk.
The die is cast and coach Rohr and his technical team should by now be combing the nooks and crannies of Europe and elsewhere in search of the ‘best’ players to call-up for these all important games And between now and two weeks’ time, the list of players to prosecute these crucial games will be out. Nigerians are expecting a shake-up in the team and it remains to be seen if the list will allay much of their fears. The list, this time around should not just be another jamboree list made up of bench-warmers in foreign clubs abroad. It should not be an experimental list made up of players who did not make any appreciable impact at their clubs last season. It must be a truly formidable list made up of Nigerian players who have proven their worth and are currently indispensable at their respective clubs abroad. It must be a list made up of Nigerian players blessed with imposing physique, guts, character and big hearts needed for these crucial games. It must be a list where those constrained to be on the bench will be as good as those that gets to start the game.
Yes, Nigerians are eagerly waiting for Rohr to unveil a truly formidable Super Eagles list ahead of the double-header cracker against Cameroon. We don’t deserve anything less!