Super Eagles manager Gernot Rohr will not deploy any special plans to stop Argentina’s captain Lionel Messi when both countries meet in a Group D preliminary game at the Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg on June 26.
“At this stage, there is no special plan,” Rohr told South Africa’s Soccer Laduma in an interview.
“We don’t even know whether he will play. Of course, we all know him and we know of his quality. But we also played against some really good players in our qualification and were able to deal with them.
“We had Riyad Mahrez at Algeria, we played against Sadio Mane and Senegal in a friendly. We know how to organise our defence against top quality players. What I can tell you now already is that there will be no man-marking of Messi.
“We did this in the old days, even myself, but it’s not used too often these days. We will deal with Messi or any big player as a collective. But often you won’t be able to keep top players quiet over the whole 90 minutes.”
Rohr also insisted that the Super Eagles will not lack on-the-pitch motivation because the team has enough inspirational figures with captain Mikel Obi, vice-captain Ogenyi Onazi, Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa all playing critical roles for the younger players.
The German-born tactician maintains that the team is constituted by very young players who are willing to learn but they are backed by a sprinkle of experienced stars which is the real reason they have been on a good run of results.
He added: “We have many young players, and everyone has a role to play in our team. But the most important leaders are our captain Mikel, the vice-captain Ogenyi Onazi, and Ahmed Musa also. We have a few very experienced players, such as our two central defenders William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor, Turkey) and Leon Balogun (Mainz, Germany) who are also very important to us. We have players such as Victor Moses (Chelsea, England) and Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, England) – they are also very important for us.”
Rorh attributed Nigeria’s smooth qualification for the World Cup with one game to spare to the morale and mental strenght of the group of players at his disposal.
He said: “Nigeria always had to wait until the last game of the qualification to qualify and this time we booked the ticket with one game to spare. What helped us in this qualification was our mental strength, we played as a unit and tactically solid. Our morale was also strong and we were able to deal with setbacks through injuries and ill players. We had some problems with our goalkeepers but were able to stabilise this position through hard work. We added a second goalkeeper coach to help us in that department. We have a good technical team that was able to deal with any issues.”
Vincent Enyeama has been touted as the likely solution to the Super Eagles’ goalkeeping mini-crisis with first choice Carl Ikeme ill and the other keepers not inspiring much confidence.
But Rohr insists the retired most-capped Nigerian international is no longer in his plans.
“There is no update (regarding Enyeama),” Rohr said. “He has problems at Lille, his club. He is currently not playing and is only number three at his side. He wanted to switch clubs but he didn’t find a new team. As a consequence, the question about Enyeama returning is not really up for debate.”
One of the available goalkeepers is Daniel Akpeyi who plays for South African top flight club Chippa United. Akpeyi has come under heavy criticism for some of his error-strewn performances but Rohr is standing by him.
“He has good chances to be one of our three goalkeepers for the World Cup,” Rohr added.
“Unfortunately, our first choice keeper Carl Ikeme is still suffering from acute leukaemia.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa had a recent injury but he will soon return to fitness. We have discovered a young keeper in Francis Uzoho who plays for Deportivo La Coruna. He played well against Argentina in the second half.
“Akpeyi was a bit unfortunate in our only defeat against South Africa. He is working hard and has a chance to be in our World Cup squad.”
On the lessons Rohr learn from the shock 2-0 defeat to South Africa in Uyo in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in 2017, Rohr explained: “I did regret the defeat but I think South Africa were very lucky.
“We had more possession. We had the better chances. South Africa scored with only their second shot – that was quite fortunate. Perhaps they celebrated the victory too much because they hardly won another game afterwards.
“One has to always remain modest even in victory. But we looked at ourselves, we questioned ourselves and showed a great response against Cameroon in the two games after changing a few things. In addition, I missed almost half on my team.”
The Nigeria coach has confidence in African countries’ chances in Russia.
“Good chances. Egypt is the best team in Africa as voted by CAF. They have the best coach. They have a chance in the group with Russia,” he said.
“The whole world will follow the game with the hosts. They also have the best player in Africa in Mohamed Salah. I also think Senegal are strong, Tunisia too, based on their strong league. Morocco with Herve Renard is also strong.”
Rohr, who has German and French heritage, unsurprisingly tipped both countries to reach the World Cup final.
“Germany and France, that’s what my heart wants, he said. “Brazil, and there’s always a surprise team in the semi-final. I hope this surprise team can come from Africa.”
Nigeria are grouped alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland and will begin the World Cup with the first match against Croatia on June 16 at the Kaliningrad Stadium.