The essence of organizing pre-World Cup friendlies isn’t just limited to trying out players to see who fits in and who doesn’t. It sees national team managers test their wits against not too dissimilar sides to those against whom they will lock horns at the competition.
When Poland and Nigeria clash at the Muncipal Stadium, Wroclaw, Adam Nawalka and Gernot Rohr will appraise their side’s performances to have a certain level of understanding of the sort of threat Senegal and Croatia possess – the respective countries they are to face in Russia.
How then do both sides match up to one another? Nawalka shouldn't struggle with his goalkeeping pick for the encounter. In Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny, the Pole has two safe pair of hands he can call on, which in turn gives him a selection headache, not a consequence of dearth in quality, but being spoiled for choice.
Contrast this with Rohr, who, clearly still has doubts over who’s going to be between the sticks in Russia. Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Francis Uzoho are the frontrunners to stake their claim as the Super Eagles' number one. Ezenwa held the fort for the last few games in the World Cup qualifiers and, having been the goalie at the CHAN, is the favourite.
Uzoho, though, is knocking on the door, and the fact that Rohr recently sent ONE of the team’s goalkeeper trainers, Enrico Pionetti to team up with young shot-stopper in Spain clearly shows the German tactician rates the youngster highly and certainly thinks he has what it takes to be between the sticks irrespective of his relative inexperience.
However, it’s not like Enyimba stopper Ezenwa isn’t also wet around the ears on the international scene as well. Compared to the the Deportivo La Coruna goalkeeper though, he’s got more experience than the 19-year old who’s got only 45 minutes of action for the West Africans (in the 4-2 win over Argentina in November) and it’ll be interesting to see who gets Rohr’s vote in goal.
Nigeria's starting goalkeeper for their opening World Cup fixture against Croatia should be... — Ed Dove (@EddyDove) March 21, 2018
Both managers’ defensive selection is one thing that should catch the eye.
In their last friendlies (against Mexico and Argentina respectively) both teams played three at the back and even though it proved unsuccessful (Poland lost 1-0, while Nigeria struggled and trailed 2-1, only to reverse it for a 4-2 win after switching back to four in defence), Nawalka and Rohr haven’t ruled out the possibility of seeing the tactic in the pre-World Cup friendlies.
So it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Eagles and Super Eagles line-up with three in central defence in Friday's friendly.
For Nigeria, especially, trying to curtail the threat of the European nation’s talisman Robert Lewandowski might see them plump for a three-man defence to offer more solidity (probably at the expense of a bit of creative freedom). The Bayern Munich forward scored 16 of Poland’s 28 goals in qualifying and the Leon Balogun-led defence will need to cut the supply to the prolific forward, although, that will be easier said than done.
On the flip side, placing all the attention on the hitman would be suicidal as well, as it’ll leave Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Blaszczykowski, either side of the attacker, open to do their damage.
Both widemen, especially the former, are unstoppable whenever they go through the gears and they can hurt the Nigeria side with their skill and direct running. Both players had three assists each in qualifying, which shows they’ve got an end product to back all that industry.
The Polish defence will certainly be kept honest too, due to the three-time African champions also possessing players in the attacking areas that can hurt them.
The White and Reds' backline won’t be comfortable playing against Odion Ighalo’s strength, Victor Moses’ power and Alex Iwobi’s flamboyance, not to mention Kelechi Iheanacho’s predatory instincts in the box. A certain weakness of the Pole side in qualifying was their tendency to make hard work of crosses into the box, in open play and from set-pieces, and it’s one aspect that could be exploited by Rohr’s side.
The absence of Oghenekaro Etebo and, in particular, Mikel John Obi will weaken Nigeria significantly in the midfield battle. The former’s tireless display and the latter’s calming influence will definitely have an effect on how the Africans play. Granted, Etebo was unlikely to start, but Mikel’s absence will likely see Rohr change how his side approach the game.
It doesn’t get any easier for Rohr’s side with Piotr Zielinski’s creativity another aspect that can hurt the West Africans as well.
The Napoli man provided four assists in qualifying, and his passing and creativity could break the lines of the Nigeria midfield.
It’ll be up to the duo of Wilfred Ndidi and Ogenyi Onazi to stop the passes between the lines with their ability to sense threatening situations and snuff out the danger.
Ultimately, it’s a battle between the sixth-placed European nation and the 52nd-placed Africans.
Poland may be the favourites, but having seen off Argentina last time around, the Super Eagles will certainly relish the chance of claiming another scalp. With Lewandowski and co. in the way, though, it could be a long night for Rohr and his players.