After a nervy 1-0 friendly victory over Poland on Friday in Wroclaw, the Super Eagles would have been confident of seeing off Serbia – who lost 2-1 to Morocco earlier.
It wasn’t to be, however, as an Aleksandar Mitrovic brace downed the West Africans 2-0 at The Hive Stadium to hand Gernot Rohr his second loss since taking charge of the national team in August 2016.
With captain John Obi Mikel failing to get his work permit from China, and Shehu Abdullahi and Leon Balogun injured, the Nigerians were in for a tough night in London.
Goalkeeper Francis Uzoho wasn’t looking composed at the start once again, while the defence was shaky with Tryonne Ebuehi and Chidozie Awaziem – Abdullahi and Balogun’s replacements, exposed multiple times.
It might have been just a friendly game, but this defeat serves as a reality check to the team.
Rohr was made acutely aware of the things he needs to work on before the World Cup kicks off in Russia in three months' time.
Make no mistake, the German tactician has been able to build a good team, however it has been centred around Mikel and Victor Moses, as well as Troost-Ekong and Balogun, popularly dubbed ‘the Oyinbo Wall’.
The cohesion and balance in the team is usually superb and this gives assurances that positive results will come along the way.
However, whenever Mikel or the ‘Oyinbo Wall’ isn’t complete, the team crumbles. The first time this happened was during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against South Africa in Uyo last June. The entire team were a shadow of themselves as the Bafana Bafana claimed a 2-0 win, their first competitive victory over the West African giants.
We can forget that the now unpopular Daniel Akpeyi was between the sticks that evening, but the defence, with Awaziem partnering Troost-Ekong, was a disaster, while a midfield featuring Wilfred Ndidi, Ogenyi Onazi and Oghenekaro Etebo lacked coordination. As a consequence, the attacking trio of Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho suffered.
Forget about goalkeeping issues, the biggest issue this Super Eagles team are having is playing exquisitely without John Mikel Obi. Even Victor Moses isn't looking his usual flamboyant self in Nigerian colours without Mikel. This is a very serious issue. #NGASRB— Odiko Godwin (@OdikoGodwin) March 27, 2018
Against Poland, the team employed a conservative approach for the entirety of the game and they did well in that regard at least, with Balogun around. However, Mikel’s absence was felt in midfield with no one dictating proceedings.
There’s a lot of quality in the Super Eagles squad, but the problem is that the backup options like Ebuehi, Awaziem, Joel Obi, John Ogu, Mikel Agu among others have not had enough minutes to impress or lack enough talent to make the desired impact.
Rohr has a solid team on paper, as stated above, but needs to find a Plan B when the key men aren’t around. Assuming Mikel or Balogun don’t make it to World Cup due to injury, the team may well struggle to make it out of Group D.
Game over just like that? What an encounter. There's still plenty for Gernot Rohr to do ahead of the World Cup. Hopefully the remaining friendlies address the ills in the team. Still believe in the German tactician regardless of the setback. #NGASRB #SoarSuperEagles— Olakunle FAYIGA (@k_ef4real) March 27, 2018
The goalkeeping department and forward line are still the biggest headaches for the Franco-German. Uzoho and Ikechukwu Ezenwa have shown good quality, but their lack of composure and poor positioning in certain moments could be costly if lady luck doesn’t smile.
He is yet to have a stable forward, with the likes of Odion Ighalo and Iheanacho either playing below par or not convincing enough.
This has led to calls of bringing Obafemi Martins back into the squad based on his experience, while Junior Ajayi made his senior debut at The Hive, coming on for Iwobi. He made little impact in his two-minute cameo, but there's more to come from the talented Al-Ahly man.
Since helping the Dream Team VI to bronze at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, 22-year old Ajayi has been progressing well, and has accrued good experience in Egyptian football.
He was also listed in the 2017 Caf best XI, beating the likes of Sadio Mane and Yacine Brahimi. Ajayi has had a hand in 37 goals (20 goals, 17 assists) in 65 apperances for the Red Devils and should get more game time in the national team to see what he can really offer to the frontline.
The international week may have passed him by, but that doesn't mean that the youngster can't solve a problem area for the Eagles.
There are still friendlies against the Democratic Republic of Congo, England and the Czech Republic to come in May and June, and it's vital that Rohr uses these fixtures to refine the rough edges in his squad in time for Russia.