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Croatia's Dejan Lovren was hardly troubled by Nigeria's Odion Ighalo

Nigeria’s Super Eagles leave their swagger off the pitch against Croatia

17 June 2018

Nigerian Afrobeats star Harrysong had a monster hit in 2015 called “Reggae Blues” with a chorus that went: “After the reggae play the blues”.  As Nigerian music literally took over the world, the synergy between music and football could be seen as the national team’s World Cup kit turned into a must-have street fashion phenomenon with the help of promo shoots with the likes of music star Wizkid.  Nigeria continues to redefine what is “cool”.  But after winning at the fashion stakes, the Super Eagles went down like a lead balloon in their World Cup opener 2-0 defeat in Kaliningrad yesterday.

The Super Eagles fly into Russia with style off the pitch and no substance on it

It was a case of “after the fashion comes the blues” as Nigerian fans were feeling blue following a performance from their team that could not match the hype that followed the launch of their World Cup kit, which sold out within minutes of going on sale in the UK.

Wizkid and Iwobi: Cool shirts, shame about the football

Going into the match, most realistic Nigerian fans would have accepted that Croatia had better players than Nigeria.  They have two of the world’s best midfielders in Real Madrid’s Luca Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic.  But as Iceland showed against Argentina, in Group D’s other game yesterday, a well-organised and supposedly technically inferior team can match a superior team where there is a game plan that the players execute well.

Sadly, Nigeria lacked a plan, lacked structure and a pattern lacked direction and seemed to be drained of confidence – something that many fans would find strange and hard to deal with it.  To have had a fighting chance against Croatia, Nigeria needed a big game from its big names.  Captain Mikel Obi, in a more attacking role than he was used to after over 10 years at Chelsea, could not provide the leadership required.  Nigeria’s other star players like Victor Moses could not seem to find a way to make a mark on the game.  Alex Iwobi, the only other player that could offer inspiration and the darling of Super Eagles fans, was largely anonymous and looked like a boy up against men.  If Iwobi was largely ineffective, Ahmed Musa, his replacement after 61 minutes was full of running, but little end product.  No surprises there.

Victor Moses and William Troost-Ekong must have thought they were representing Nigeria in wrestling

While coach Gernot Rohr may want to hide under the relative inexperience of the team and the fact that Croatia were technically superior, a lot of the blame for this flat performance must rest squarely on him.  It is bad enough to lose, but it is even worse to lose without a fight.  Croatia scored after 31 minutes from a corner.  In all the friendlies before the World Cup, Nigeria continued to show weakness especially with second balls from set pieces.  It is shocking that a German coach did not try to iron these things out.  Croatia’s most dangerous player in the air, Mario Mandzukic was given the freedom of the 18 yard box to direct a header which came off a team-mate and then Etebo Oghenekaro  on the Nigerian goal-line to roll in for the first goal.  Leon Balogun should have been marking Mandzukic but went AWOL.

Watch the highlights below:

Croatia’s second goal came after the break when Balogun’s central defensive partner William Troost-Ekong wrestled Mandzukic to the floor while defending another corner.  Modric calmly put away the penalty in the 71st minute.

What was worrying for Nigerians was that Rohr chose to replace striker Odion Ighalo with Kelechi Iheanacho two minutes after going two down.  Nigeria needed goals at this point and you don’t need a coaching licence to know that you increase your chances of scoring by having more strikers on the pitch.  Rohr insisted on playing just one upfront.  That smacked of cowardice and a lack of ambition.  It was a very “un-Nigerian” reaction to the situation.  Rohr’s risk averse approach to the game made things worse in the circumstances.

It was Ighalo’s birthday yesterday and none of Nigeria’s midfielders served him any treats to feast on.  He ran willingly but couldn’t get any change from the Serbian defence.  A weak header from him in the second half was Nigeria’s first attempt on target.

Nigeria pays the penalty as Troost-Ekong tries to stop Mandzukic by any means necessary

With Obi missing in action in midfield, Etebo was game but limited.  He tried to run with the ball to make things happen, but on most occasions, it would have been better to just pass and move.  He ended up showing why he will be playing for Stoke in England’s second tier next season.  There was very little movement from the Nigerians.  Rohr should have known that Croatia would outclass his team in midfield.  This meant that the flanks could give the Super Eagles a chance to stretch the game with their pace.  But none of their full-backs presented an attacking threat.  Brian Idowu was solid at left-back, but had nothing to offer going forward.  On the other flank, Shehu Abdullahi was full of effort but no effective threat.  Surely, it is now time that the more attacking and better crosser of a ball Tyrone Ebuehi is handed a start.

By the time Rohr decided to gamble and have two strikers on the pitch – Simeon Nwankwo alongside Iheanacho and replacing the very pedestrian Mikel Obi in the 88th minute, it was way too late.  The changes made and their timing did not suggest the coach was trying to tie, let alone win the game.

With the German handing the initiative to Croatia, it was a routine cruise to victory for them with Danijel Subasic hardly troubled in their goal.  This is likely to be their easiest match in the group and not many Nigerians would have seen things turning out like this.  Nothing hurts more than losing so meekly.

This draining defeat leaves Nigeria facing a mission impossible to avoid an almost certain first round exit.  Iceland, buzzing from a creditable 1-1 draw with Argentina, are next on Friday waiting to freeze any lingering hopes of Nigerian qualification.  Nigeria would have to find something they have not shown last night and in all the games in the run-up to the tournament to overcome the well-drilled Icelanders.  Even a victory may not be enough as next on the agenda is the small matter of Lionel Messi and Argentina.

That said, Rohr must be brave in the next two games.  If Nigeria are going out of the tournament, they should go out like warriors, taken out on their shield.  They should go out all guns blazing, with no bullets left in their holsters.  Author Jack Campbell said: “You can’t win unless you try to win, but you can lose by trying not to lose”.   Nigeria must ditch Rohr’s safety first approach for the “must win” games against Iceland and Argentina.


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