By Jacob Ajom
For the first time in Nigeria’s chequered football history, the national football team, the Super Eagles look 90 per cent sure of a World Cup ticket with two matches to spare. It will take a miracle for the next team, Zambia with 4 points, in Group B of the African qualifying series to overtake Nigeria who are standing 10 points clear and a plus 7 goals aggregate. Never in the history of the Eagles have they had such an unassailable ride to a World Cup.
The journey began with a heart warming 2-1 victory over Zambia in Ndola. It was Gernot Rohr’s first competitive outing with the Eagles. It was a result that raised the morale and confidence in the players but the coach was quick to tell Nigerians that the struggle was still a long way ahead. Rohr who had just been employed amidst muted criticisms by apologists of indigenous coaches believes in approaching every match with a different plan.
The Franco-German tactician who was a World Cup player himself in his active days, has reinvigorated the Nigerian spirit in his team and brought back Nigeria’s traditional wing play to the team that had drifted to strange, and sometimes very confusing systems in the recent past. One could see the Eagles today employing a different but discernible pattern. Gradually, An average Nigerian football fan can now name Super Eagles first eleven and reserves.
Rohr who is not new to African football has brought back discipline, focus and determination to the team and engendered a lot of support for the Eagles. Cameroon’s once dreaded national team and current Africa Cup of Nations holders, the Indomitable Lions suffered the worst humiliation in the hands of the new look Eagles under Rohr. The second match in the qualifiers was at home against Algeria. Nigeria won 3-1.
Cameroon won’t be in Russia for next year’s World Cup after they were eliminated from the final round of qualifying on Monday. Hugo Broos’ side needed to beat Nigeria at home, but could only manage a 1-1 draw and will not be in the 2018 edition of the tournament.
They are the first African side to be knocked out of the final qualifying standings, ensuring that the one-time World Cup quarter-finalists’ recent revival was short-lived. Their slump which began at the FIFA Confederations Cup was roundly exposed by the Eagles who hammered them 4-0 in Uyo before the 1-1 draw four days after in Yaounde.
Nigeria’s resurgence after the 0-2 loss to South Africa in June was not surprising to most football analysts. Rohr made five changes to the team that lost to South Africa. In the match against South Africa the experience of John Obi Mikel was absent, the dashing Nigeria wing back who plays as a midfielder in the national team, Victor Moses was not there. Odion Ighalo too was absent, ditto Leon Balogun and the newly crowned Nigeria’s number one goalkeeper, Ikechukwu Ezenwa. The five brought in so much positive effect that Rohr simply said, “I am happy with the difference they made to the team. They were all awesome.”
There is perhaps, the forgotten issue of the goalkeeper crisis that visited the Eagles just as the third round of the qualifiers was looming. Carl Ikeme, the Eagles number 1 was diagnosed of acute leukaemia. That ruled him out of the encounter against South Africa. Daniel Akpeyi was brought in to deputise. His performance was not too convincing. Indeed Nigerians were apprehensive over what might happen if Akpeyi was to be in goal when the Eagles face Cameroon. The fears were heightened when Rohr openly declared support for Akpeyi, saying he would stick with him because he was the most experienced among his equals in the squad. Rohr however, took a decisive step by hiring his long time friend, Enrico Pionetti as goalkeepers trainer.
Then came the CHAN Eagles double header against the Squirrels of Benin. FC IfeanyiUbah goal tender, Ikechukwu Ezenwa rose to the occasion. He shone like a million stars in both legs and ensured Benin did not eliminate Nigeria. The home Eagles lost the first leg through an odd penalty in the dying minutes of the game in Cotonou and won the second leg 2-0 as Ezenwa stopped a penalty that would have sealed a ticket for Benin in next year’s CHAN had it been converted.
When Rohr announced his squad against Cameroon and Ezenwa was named as the man to stand between the sticks, he was applauded. And the young man did not disappoint. In Uyo against Cameroon, he dived for, kicked at and punched every ball thrown at him. He kept a clean sheet and Rohr was proud of him and dedicated the Uyo victory to Ikeme. “We promised him before the match that we would win for him. We are dedicating this victory to him and hope that he will be with us when we are going to the World Cup,” Rohr said.