COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
What followed was a tremendous entertaining goalfest, and the birth of a new star on the world stage: Oghenekaro Etebo plundered four goals serving notice of his immense ability and turning apprehension into adulation. At the risk of romanticizing a bad situation, it displayed the indomitable Nigerian spirit aptly.
This is relevant particularly now, because much of the criticism that has been lobbed the way of the Super Eagles in the aftermath of last weekend's loss to Croatia had centred upon a lack of character. There was a mechanical clunkiness to the performance - the Tin Woodman with no heart - which further deepened the dissatisfaction with the result.
As Gernot Rohr prepares for Friday's make-or-break meeting with Iceland, he faces greater scrutiny than at any time previously as coach of the national side. Nothing insulates quite like getting results, and the German's results in qualifying have tided him over up until this time. Now, a backlog of recent poor results has led to question marks over his decision-making and style, and not just from his constituency.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, as a pundit for Russian television, has bemoaned Rohr's decision to use John Obi Mikel in an attacking role behind the centre-forward, and while he has rightly defended himself, he is not helped by the statistics: Etebo, forced to play a much deeper role, has been the World Cup's most effective dribbler, with nine out of nine attempts.
What's even more ironic is that the use of Mikel that far forward was a legacy of his performances there during the Olympic tournament. Quite why Rohr picked one pointer, but not the other, is puzzling; having, on the evidence of a handful of games, gone against the evidence of an entire career to 'convert' the captain into an attacking midfielder, Rohr has then proceeded to ignore the evidence of those games, and shoehorn Etebo into a defensive role.
Amusingly enough, Etebo seems a victim of his own attributes: his versatility, power and fierce work rate have probably, in the minds of most, lent him the toga of a defensive player. He is anything but: worth noting is the fact that his bursts from behind the striker were what qualified Nigeria for that Olympics to begin with.
The infusion of Mikel into the team came at a cost, but only a marginal one, as Samson Siasia moved the Stoke City new boy into a wide forward role, which he interpreted with aplomb. In Etebo's absence in the semi-final against Germany, the team looked shorn of attacking invention, and meekly lost.
If his showing against Croatia, from which he escaped, as one man, with his reputation intact (and possibly even advanced) indicates anything, it is that he is set to be a breakout star in Russia. However, Rohr owes it to the player, and to himself, to explore the full extent of Etebo's ability.
It really would not require much of a reshuffle, and would address a central frustration felt by Nigerians, and aptly expressed by Mourinho: the misappropriation of roles within the team.
Mikel alongside Wilfred Ndidi at the base, Alex Iwobi in the number 10 position, and Etebo reprising his dynamic wide forward role, retains the base 4-2-3-1 setup, without even altering the starting lineup.
Sometimes, football really is that easy: getting the best out of available resources by utilizing said resources in the most optimal fashion.
Etebo beating challenges in the centre of the pitch, only to lay it off to Mikel, loses the entire momentum of the move. It may have worked during qualifying, as the coach has so righteously pointed out, but it is not working now.
That really plays up a key frustration with Rohr - he takes too long, in-game, to realize what isn't working. He must now rise above his primal stubbornness, and make the obvious call: if you have an in-form player, he must be used where he can be most beneficial to the collective.
If, that is, it is not already too late.