By Osasu Obayiuwana
Having started on an extremely bright note in Ndola, with a 2-1 win over Zambia’s Chipolopolo in October, another victory today, over Algeria in Uyo, will ensure the Super Eagles end this year in fine fettle and with improved chances of qualifying for Russia.
Stuck in the mire of managerial chaos for the last six months, having three coaches for the national team in as much time, the Fennecs ought to be ripe pickings for Gernot Rohr’s men at the ‘Nest of Champions’.
Frenchman Christian Gourcuff stepped down from the job in April and Serbian Milovan Rajevac only had two games in charge of the North Africans, the last being a 1-1 draw in their World Cup qualifier against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, before he got the chop.
Rajevac was forced to quit as a result of ‘player power’, after the entire squad made it clear to Mohamed Raouraoua, the president of the Algerian Football Federation, FAF, that they were fed up with his coaching methods.
“The players and staff are so close to the FAF president,” Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi told me on Wednesday, from Algiers.
“A unanimity of players rejected Rajevac and his methods. That lends credence to the thought that this wasn’t a petty revolt, but there might have been something wrong with the coach.”
The 67-year-old George Leekens who recently lost his job, as coach of Belgian side Lokeren – losing eight out of their first 12 league matches – accepted a return to his old job in the Maghreb, after 13 years.
“If the Leekens experiment fails, the blame will fall squarely on Raouraoua’s shoulders,” Mezahi said.
Having to play against Nigeria in a crucial World Cup qualifier, is certainly not the way Leekens would have wanted to begin his second chapter with Algeria.
“Algeria’s chaotic situation is one that we need to take thorough advantage of,” said an NFF source close to Gernot Rohr.
“But we have to be careful not to rest on our oars and think that the game in Uyo will be easy, just because they appear to be in disarray. That would be a grave mistake.”
He certainly has a point. Algeria remains one of the continent’s top teams, with a talented group of Europe-based players, including Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez, the current PFA Player of the Year, and Islam Slimani, his club mate.
“They’re the two best players in the national team,” Mezahi said.
“Slimani has been climbing up Algeria’s all-time goal-scoring chart and Mahrez is the most talented and productive player we’ve had since Rabah Madjer.
“With these two growing closer and closer at Leicester, I expect Algeria to do great things in the next year and a half,” Mezahi predicted.
Only an opponent ready to engage in folly would think of beating Algeria in Uyo as a stroll in the park. It certainly won’t be.
With no further World Cup qualifiers until next year, Gernot Rohr is acutely aware there is little or no room for error this afternoon. Or during the entire campaign, for that matter.
As heart-warming as the 2-1 victory in Ndola was, Rohr accepts that Nigeria could have had a 2-0 win but for Kenneth Omeruo’s unforced defensive error.
Every conceded goal, even in victory, is potentially disadvantageous in this qualifying campaign.
“We just have to try not to make any mistakes [during this qualifying series],” Gernot told me in October.
“Sometimes, coaches make mistakes, not just the players. We have to be at the top level, all the time.”
An unexpected injury to Carl Ikeme, the Eagles’ current first-choice goalkeeper, starkly reminds us of the fact that Vincent Enyeama is not a key part of this campaign.
Left to Gernot, there is no question about Vincent returning to the Eagles and resuming the World Cup career that he began in 2002.
“We have good contact. I have known Vincent for a long time, in France. When he is ready to come back, he will come back,” Rohr told me.
“But we cannot force him to come back. We must give him time.”
I know some Nigerians don’t want Enyeama to end his international retirement. But I think it is imperative that he does – as long as it is not disruptive to team cohesion.
What was clear from the Zambia game, is that Gernot is building a Super Eagles with the attacking energy and youthful invention of Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi and Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho.
That, tempered by the needed “big-game” experience and leadership Mikel John Obi is bringing, is certainly a good thing.
Mikel has clearly grown in stature and wisdom, having come a very long way since I met him as an outstandingly promising teenager in Oslo, Norway in 2005. I hope he is able to captain the Super Eagles in the same distinguished manner with which he led the Under-23 Olympic team in Rio.
And, as Gernot has already observed, being a former Bayern Munich defender himself, discipline amongst the back four will be decisive in whether Nigeria gets to the World Cup or not.
But P-R-O-F-E-S-S-I-O-N-A-L administrative support must be provided by the Nigeria Football Federation, if Gernot and the players are to accomplish ‘Mission Very Difficult’.
The devil in World Cup qualification is in the small backroom details. Amaju Pinnick and the NFF he heads will be well advised to note this.
Like every other Nigerian, I expect today to end on a very good note. I certainly don’t want to leave Uyo an unhappy man.