Captain Mikel John Obi was left out of the squad, and considering the influential leader had been a vital cog hitherto under the German tactician, his absence had the potential to expose weaknesses in the Nigeria midfield.
The decision was questioned in many quarters, yet, following the midfielder’s move to Chinese side Tianjin Teda in January, the general consensus was that the call was made to allow him properly settle in the East Asian country.
Is Mikel Obi injured? Is he suffering from any sickness or disease? If not why is he not among the Nigeria team??? — Mr Chelsea FC ™ (@Xperience_Snr) March 23, 2017
Chosen in his stead were Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo, John Ogu and Ogenyi Onazi – who eventually captained the side against the Teranga Lions.
Rohr elected to start the game with Onazi and Ndidi in the pivot, with the duo tasked with containing the physical Lions’ midfield. However, after an erratic half hour in which the Nigeria midfield failed to control proceedings, the former Burkina Faso coach might have wished he included Mikel in the squad, and who would have blamed him for thinking that?
The veteran is blessed with a plethora of abilities, not to mention his knack for creating time—for himself and his teammates— when in possession of the ball irrespective of the nature of opponents pressing.
Here were the Super Eagles struggling for fluency in midfield, incessantly being caught in possession, struggling to create chances and crying out for Mikel.
The pairing of Onazi and Ndidi—who has been in good form for resurgent Leicester City recently—was struggling against the physical Senegalese in the freezing cold conditions at the Hive Stadium, and it was clear that something had to change.
The Eagles got the break they needed, albeit it coming in unfortunate circumstances, when a knee to the back of stand-in skipper Onazi by Mame Biram Diouf forced a substitution in the 25th minute; one that was to change the course of the game for both sides.
Perhaps noticing his players were being dominated physically, Rohr sent on the towering John Ogu—rather than the slight Etebo—to partner the Leicester man in midfield. The decision, though simplistic enough, proved to be the right one.
The imposing midfielder’s presence brought an element of calm to proceedings as the three-time African champions gained a foothold in the game. The Eagles found their passing range and even got stuck in when necessary…maybe Mikel wasn’t going to be missed after all!
The newfound composure in midfield saw Nigeria increasingly bypassing the onslaught of the opponents and even led to a few decent openings in the final third.
Unsurprisingly, those half chances were created after moments of brilliance by the new partnership in midfield, while two clear-cut opportunities in quick succession particularly caught the eye. Twice Ndidi released Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa, but on both occasions, the execution in the final third left a lot to be desired.
The pairing looked good together and grew as the game wore on and were physical when necessary, as evidenced when Ndidi and Chekh Ndoye squared up.
The second half saw their influence reduce slightly, but they still held their own in the middle of the park, with both sides enjoying phases of dominance. The Lions’ best spell came just after half-time, a period in which they duly went in front through veteran attacker Moussa Sow.
Responding to that low blow, Rohr withdrew the ineffective Alex Iwobi just after the hour mark and replaced him with Etebo, another substitution which changed the direction of the match, with the Nigerians seizing the initiative in the remaining stages of the game.
The proactivity of the young Eagles side was admirable given the absence of their captain and they bagged the equalizer in the final ten minutes of the game through striker Iheanacho. It was no less than they deserved, and they could even have netted a winner with a final late flurry.
The draw, however, was the fair result, on the balance of play.
Nigeria did brilliantly irrespective of their skipper’s absence, and the trio of John Ogu, Wilfred Ndidi and Etebo—the first two, in particular—covered themselves in glory with fine displays.
The draw against the stout Teranga Lions—ranked five places higher than the Super Eagles—was a good result, all things considered, and while Mikel will return to the side and can continue to contribute to Nigeria, there was hope that there’s a bright future in midfield without him!