High stakes for Gernot Rohr as Cameroon await
Nigeria’s return to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), after a six-year absence, was greeted with a wave of extreme optimism.
It was not unjustified either. Not only had the Super Eagles qualified impressively with a game to spare, but a crop of young, exciting players, hardened in the fires of a World Cup appearance, seemed ready to make a proper statement.
At the centre of it all was Gernot Rohr, the German coach who had, in the space of two years, put the Nigeria national team back on the footballing map. With the country now legitimately a threat to be feared, it made sense for most to expect a memorable run in Egypt this summer.
Things, however, have not exactly gone to plan in that regard.
On Sunday, the continent witnessed the first real upset of the AFCON, as debutants Madagascar defeated Nigeria 2-0 in the final group game. The result saw the island nation top Group B ahead of Nigeria, thereby putting the Super Eagles into the same half of the draw as hosts Egypt.
The reaction was, predictably, fierce. It was not reactionary though: through the three games so far, there has been little to kindle excitement, or even to tease possible improvements in subsequent rounds.
In the opening match against Burundi, Rohr’s side was pedestrian for large periods, and actually gave up the best chance of the game in the first half. Only in the second, with two substitutions and a piece of improvised brilliance from full-back Ola Aina, did Nigeria find the goal to decide a cagey match.
It was not much better against Guinea. Neither team was able to control proceedings, and it took a corner-kick to pick a way through.
So, even before the shock Madagascar loss, it was clear that things were not going as well as they might. Whereas his quirks were acceptable and even excused by some while the results were convincing, Rohr’s decision-making has now opened him up to more scrutiny than ever before.
His refusal to properly integrate the likes of Samuel Chukwueze, Victor Osimhen and Henry Onyekuru – who he has told to bulk up if he is to get a look-in – has been one source of frustration. Why has he instead insisted on fielding Samuel Kalu, who missed most of the second half of the club season, and then had to be rushed to hospital on the eve of the opening game, ahead of them?
Even more pertinently, how can Rohr’s fixation on John Mikel Obi as an attacking midfielder be explained? The former Chelsea man played the role quite well during qualification for last year’s World Cup, but that was two years ago, and even then there were concerns about his physical capacity.
In spite of this, and the fact that it did not work in the opening game, Rohr elected to hand him the role for a second time against Madagascar. The result was, predictably, underwhelming.
It makes his decision to only name four central midfielders in the squad look even worse when, besides Alex Iwobi, the only other player who can (and has publicly stated he would prefer to) play behind the striker, Oghenekaro Etebo, is fielded as a defensive midfielder.
Whereas Etebo is conscientious enough to carry out the coach’s desires – he has been one of the better players at the AFCON – there have been understandable murmurings from the camp of preferential treatment granted to some, a sense that the same rules do not apply for all.
With this tension as a backdrop, a meeting with AFCON nemesis Cameroon in the Round of 16 could not come at a worse time.
The Indomitable Lions have bequeathed heartbreak to the Super Eagles repeatedly down the years, especially in AFCON finals—three of their five titles have come at the expense of Nigeria: in 1984, 1988 and 2000. The stakes, and rivalry, could not be more intense.
Rohr routed Cameroon on home soil en route to World Cup qualifying, but a tournament is an entirely different setting. All it takes is one big victory to act as a catalyst: in 2017, a penalty shoot-out triumph over Senegal propelled the Indomitable Lions to an unlikely triumph.
With the sense growing that Rohr is now actively holding his own team back, a statement performance against a major rival would go a long way toward winning him back the confidence of the fans and the football authorities. Any less, and he may well be out of a job.
The stakes are that high.
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