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How Nigeria must rebuild after World Cup 2018 exit

8:46 PM SGT 6/7/18
Nigeria - Mikel Obi, Odion Ighalo
The Super Eagles' elimination was not altogether unexpected, and now Gernot Rohr must kick the second phase of his rebuilding project into gear

COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu      Follow on Twitter
 

Every major footballing nation remains in thrall to a past glory in some way; either banking on it or aspiring to it. For the larger nations, it tends to be a bit of both, but for the smaller, like Nigeria, it is very much the latter.

It explains, to some degree, why the success of 1994 has come to be looked upon as a manual of sorts, a strict 'How To' on building a successful Nigerian national side.

By that example, it begins with the manager: Clemens Westerhof, charismatic as he was, 'needed' five years to 'build' Nigeria its finest ever side for a maiden World Cup, and so it is against that timeframe that every prospective Nigerian helmsman has been measured: less than that, and you're ahead of schedule, and in credit.

Therefore, in taking charge 'only' two years ago and navigating a tricky qualifying group, Gernot Rohr was basically playing with house money in Russia. Also, and as is crucial in continuing in the Westerhof tradition, it has bought him time to continue re-building the national side.

To his credit, he did in fact do just this in freshening up the age profile of the Super Eagles, unlike a number of his predecessors who only paid lip service to the idea.

Now, in the aftermath of the World Cup, it is widely expected that the next phase of Rohr's rebuild will kick in, with a view to making a deep run (at the very least) in next year's Africa Cup of Nations, and then a proper tilt at the 2021 edition.

 


NIGERIA PLAYERS WHO SHOULD BE DROPPED


Of the 23 that made up the squad to Russia, five are 30 years and older. Those dreaded numbers usually sound the horn for the twilight of a player's career. However, experience is crucial within the set-up, and so it would not do to consign them all to the scrap heap on that account right away.

Mikel John Obi and Leon Balogun rallied impressively at the Mundial to deliver strong performances, and both ought to be retained for their leadership.

Balogun's steadying hand remains crucial for the continued growth of William Troost-Ekong, who is not quite ready to take the reins himself; for Mikel, Afcon 2019 would afford him the well-earned chance to end his 13-year association with the national team on a high.

Elderson Echiejile and Daniel Akpeyi, at 30 and 32 respectively, have almost certainly outlived their usefulness in the national team. The former's experience counted for nought, while the latter had played himself out of contention with a number of errors, and can no longer be relied upon.

Ogenyi Onazi, once a lynchpin within the team, is another who arguably should be dropped.

In truth, his form has been a worry for quite a while: the feeling persists that he has not been the same since breaking his foot in the 2014 World Cup. His feckless showing in the pre-World Cup friendly against England, alongside Joel Obi, was the last straw for a usually loyal Rohr.

Another who is surely done with the national team is Odion Ighalo. His form heading to Russia was not great, but he could somewhat justifiably point to a lack of quality service anyway.

That all changed in St Petersburg, when he missed two gilt-edged chances to put Nigeria into the Round of 16. Nigerians have long memories, and it would take a miracle to see him considered again.

 


NIGERIA PLAYERS WHO SHOULD BE CALLED UP


The Super Eagles had a few glaring holes in the squad composition at the World Cup. Most notable of them, by a country mile, was the guile to start attacks from the back.

Moving Mikel back slightly addressed that, but the depreciation in his physical abilities were clear, as he often lacked the dynamic movements to create angles and receive the ball from the centre-backs.

To address this, Rohr would do well to look to a player who has not been involved under him to this point: Azubuike Okechukwu.

The Yeni Matalyaspor man was the midfield controller for the Under-23 side which got to the semi-final at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Blessed with vision and a superb passing range, Azubuike adds in the dynamism and yard of pace which Mikel has lost.

The clamour for Kelechi Nwakali has continued apace since his stunning goal in an end-of-season friendly against Atletico Madrid. However, 2019 will come a little too early for him; he offers a promising transitional option from midfield, and will come into the frame for Afcon 2021, should he continue to develop.

Ebube Duru also caught the eye in that friendly, and is probably better placed to profit right away. Bryan Idowu proved one of the more disappointing players at the World Cup, and the team visibly suffered from having to shoehorn a right-footer at left wing-back.

Duru, whose dynamism is particularly suited to bombing up and down, would alleviate that concern. Enyimba's Ikouwem Udoh is another option, albeit a somewhat raw one.

In some ways, the switch to a 3-5-2 was a legacy of the unfortunate injury to Moses Simon on the eve of the tournament. It robbed the Super Eagles of a true wide player, and so forced a move to a back three and front two.

Simon ought to return, but an interesting option is club teammate Samuel Kalu. The 20-year-old has the ability to stretch play, beat his man on the outside, and get crosses in from the byline.

To profit off those crosses, it may be time to give further opportunities to NPFL goleador Junior Lokosa. The Kano Pillars man was utilized on the flank in his only international appearance, and while there is a concern about his all-round game, there is none about his ability to find the back of the net.

There is also the prospect of a call-up for Taiwo Awoniyi, should he continue to develop as he did this past season.

 


HOW NIGERIA SHOULD LOOK AT AFCON 2019


While he will certainly remain to lead the side, there is a case to be made Mikel would no longer be due an automatic spot in the starting line-up if Azubuike is called up.

Alex Iwobi would also grow into a more prominent role, taking over the reins in the number 10 position definitively.

That, of course, would depend on the formation: in order to retain two strikers, but still have some creativity between the lines, the side could revert to a four-man defence and line up in a diamond midfield by leaving out a centre-back.

Alternatively, the possibility of a return to the 4-2-3-1 shape, which Rohr favoured all through qualifying, remains, which could see Kalu or Simon step into the right flank, with Victor Moses included on the left.

This would leave Rohr with a tricky decision to make up front, with the likes of Lokosa, Musa, Simy Nwankwo and Kelechi Iheanacho all competing for one starting spot.