COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Gernot Rohr will be cursing his luck ahead of Nigeria's bout with the Seychelles on Saturday. He’d been aware of the need to chop and change for the visit to the East African nation, as a consequence of a glut of injuries that has affected a few of his primary picks.
Mikel John Obi, Abdullahi Shehu and Tyronne Ebuehi are injured, while the recently retired Victor Moses wasn’t an option, and all were consequently excluded from the initial selection.
Rohr would’ve wished for a clean bill of health for the rest of the side, but it wasn’t to be, with the latest withdrawals of William Troost-Ekong, Ola Aina and Alex Iwobi through injury further reducing his options. The pulling out of the defensive pair, in particular, will have had the German scratching his head at what is set to see him reshuffle his backline for the Pirates clash.
You get the feeling that, excluding the latest set of injuries, Rohr’s defence would probably have included Aina, Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun and Brian Idowu – if he was sending his team out in a back four, or Kenneth Omeruo included as well should he opt for a back three.
However, we can now expect Omeruo to be deployed at right-back, with either Chidozie Awaziem or potential debutant Semi Ajayi slotting in to partner Balogun in central defence.
On the one hand, one could be tempted to shrug it off as inconsequential given the three-time African champions are locking horns with a side sat in 188th place in the August FIFA Men’s Ranking table, which has them as the 51st-placed side in Africa.
It comes in stark contrast to Nigeria, who are seventh.
Nonetheless, Rohr's poor start to the campaign - which saw them lose 2-0 in their opening game to South Africa - leaves the Super Eagles needing to avoid another poor result to boost their qualifying hopes. They cannot afford to take anything for granted in their visit to the tiny island nation.
Awaziem has predominantly been in the side as a last resort, which is evidenced by his placement as the fourth choice in the pecking order.
His last appearance for Nigeria was a 2-0 pre-World Cup friendly defeat to Serbia in March, while you have to go way back to June 2017, the aforementioned defeat to South Africa in Nations Cup qualifying, for his last competitive start for the Eagles.
It will be unfair to single out the youngster for what was, in all honesty, a disastrous all-round team performance against Bafana Bafana – a game in which the impressive Tokelo Rantie ran him ragged – and one can only presume he’ll have it easier this time against the Seychelles.
Given the Porto man also has the experience of playing the role of understudy for over a year under Rohr, regardless of his lack of playing time; you feel he’d get the nod over the untested Semi Ajayi, whose inclusion stunned several Nigerians who felt he hadn’t done anything noteworthy to deserve a call-up.
I don't understand Gernot Rohr's rationale for inviting a third division player to the Super Eagles when quality abounds in the NPFL. The national team should not be a recycle bin.— Shina Oludare (@sportingshina) August 24, 2018
Ajayi, by contrast, may not have Awaziem’s experience of training with the side – and for a position as fragile as central defence, ‘safety first’ is always key – but his superior amount of playing time this season may work in his favour.
The towering defender has played every minute of Rotherham United’s six Championship games this year, as opposed to his rival, who’s failed to get a single minute of action with the Portuguese giants.
The rusty centre-half was an unused substitute in the Blue and Whites’ Super Cup victory over Desportivo Aves, before reprising his role in league wins against Chaves and Belenenses, but hasn’t been selected in Sergio Conceicao’s squad in two successive games – against Vitoria Guimaraes and Moreirense.
Furthermore, the former Arsenal rookie’s slightly superior pace to Awaziem might also give him the edge in the race to make the starting lineup. Given Balogun isn’t the quickest either, it might be somewhat unwise by Rohr to pair the Brighton & Hove Albion man with an equally slow partner and risk being got at by the Pirates in this weekend's encounter.
However, the West Africans do not typically play a high defensive line, and that might make render the aforementioned fact a bit trivial.
Rohr knows his Nigeria side need maximum points in Seychelles to boost their qualifying hopes, and masterminding a victory with an injury-ravaged side may yet prove tricky.
For his central defensive pick though, perhaps he should heed these words: ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ when contemplating his Super Eagles team.
Perhaps Awaziem, despite his failings, might be the smarter pick for the German tactician.