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Mitrovic fires in his and Serbia's second goal

Serbia serves Nigeria a severe reality check

Nigerian euphoria after beating Poland 1-0 in Wroclaw last Friday was brought down to earth with a bump on a cold night at Barnet FC’s The Hive Stadium with a 2-0 defeat against Serbia courtesy of a second half brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Playing a friendly against Serbia made a lot of sense for Nigeria’s Super Eagles as they prepare for their World Cup Group D clash against Croatia on 16 June in Kaliningrad, Russia.  As Serbia and Croatia belonged to the former Yugoslavia, both play a similar style of football and the Nigerians were given a taste of what to expect when the serious business begins in Russia.

Nigeria started sluggishly with a lot of misplaced passes and there was no player that was an exception.  This reporter later found out that the players ordered food at their hotel from Mama Calabar, a nearby Nigerian restaurant.  Nigerian staples such as pounded yam are not really the sort of diet nutritionists would recommend before matches.  It is very unlikely that Nigerian stars such as Victor Moses at Chelsea, Alex Iwobi at Arsenal or Wilfred Ndidi at Leicester would be allowed to feast on Nigerian food at their clubs before games.

Watch the highlights below:

Nigeria hardly presented themselves as an attacking force in the first half, with Serbia having clear sights at goal in the 24th and 40th minute.  The Super Eagles were grateful for goalie Francis Uzoho, who despite looking jittery, pulled off a couple of smart saves.

Iwobi had a look at goal after 27 minutes and wasted it and it took 36 minutes before Nigeria took advantage of the pace of Ahmed Musa, who started as a striker.

The Nigeria midfield trident of Ogenyi Onazi, Ndidi and Joel Obi struggled all half to create a decent chance and this highlighted the huge creative deficit in the team when skipper Mikel Obi is absent.  This is rather shocking considering Obi spent his entire career at Chelsea as a safety-first holding midfielder.  But he remains a talisman for the Nigerians and his countrymen and women would be praying he brings his A-game to Russia, for them to stand a chance of qualifying from a group that also includes Argentina and Iceland.  The other Obi, once again, didn’t show anything to suggest he belongs in this company.

The second half started with Odion Ighalo replacing Musa as the attacking spearhead.  Ighalo  had come on for a disappointing Moses, while Musa moved to the right flank.  It was a major improvement as Ighalo was a more muscular presence and held up the ball well, although he didn’t always succeed in bringing others into the game.

Iwobi and Nigeria gradually grew into the game as it approached the hour mark, with Nigeria having their best chances on the 62nd and 63rd minutes.  The first saw Ighalo go for the spectacular with a failed attempt at an overhead kick, perhaps a simpler chest and lay off would have done the trick, and the next chance drew a point blank save from the Serbian keeper.

Then Mitrovic struck after 67 minutes.  A give and go between him and another attacker down the left saw the striker, on loan at Fulham from Newcastle, side-foot into the Nigerian net from close range.  With 10 minutes left, another move down the left, where Nigerian right-back Tyrone Ebuehi seemed to have switched off on both occasions, resulted in a low Serbian cross for Mitrovic to finish with another smart side-foot – this time with his right.

By this time, the fight was knocked out of the very disjointed Nigerians, who were really outclassed by Serbia on the night.  The eastern Europeans passed the ball better, worked like a unit and used space very well.  These are all things that Nigeria seemed to lack.

It was an all-round flat performance from both the Nigerians on the field and those in the stands, who seemed to be sitting and waiting for the players to lift their moods, instead of trying to lift the players.  Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was because it was a friendly, maybe it was because it was Serbia.  It should hopefully be different the next time the Super Eagles fly into London to face England at Wembley on the 2nd of June.

The only pluses from the game are that it highlighted the extent of the work that still needed to be done and it served as a useful reality check after some Nigerians were being carried away by the victory over Poland.  The lesson here is that Nigerian fans should keep calm in victory or defeat in friendlies and hope that coach Gernot Rohr has mitigation plans for the problems that arose during those games.

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