A win over Sierra Leone on Tuesday would secure Cup of Nations passage for the Super Eagles, but some changes are needed to rebound from last Friday
One of the legacies of an expanded Africa Cup of Nations format is a relative lack of jeopardy as far as qualifying goes.
With the top two teams in each group advancing, the odds seem almost improbably stacked in favour of the top seeds. As such, there is no requirement for perfection, and qualification – barring gross incompetence – is almost a given.
It says a lot that, despite their second-half collapse in Benin City last Friday, Nigeria can travel to Sierra Leone with the near-certainty that a win there punches their ticket for the Afcon. Sure, their pride took a beating, and they have since come under fire from a broad spectrum of observers, but in the grand scheme, those are largely flesh wounds. Rebound quickly, and it will come to be viewed as a slap in the face, a much-needed wake-up call.
However, to take a win on Tuesday for granted would be to essentially ignore the very lessons of Benin City. Clearly, going by the demeanour of the players and the flow of the game, there was a belief the game was already won, and perhaps even the derisory manner of the Super Eagles’ fourth was a sort of self-hypnosis. That this Nigeria side has superior quality is not in doubt; what is is the ability to stay focused and on-message for the entire duration.
So, what must Gernot Rohr and his charges do to seal the deal in Freetown? Here are three obvious ideas.
Keep a clean sheet
Over the course of the opening three matches, Nigeria have scored 10 goals and conceded seven. Worryingly, excellence in attack has not been reciprocated at the rear, and if anything it seems to be getting worse.
Against both Benin and Lesotho, the Super Eagles went behind early, but displayed admirable fortitude to rein in the opposition and outscore them. Conceding twice to Lesotho left a bitter taste though, even allowing for the fact one of the goals was a sliced own-goal by Chidozie Awaziem.
Against Sierra Leone, the malaise was altogether different: rather than a sleepy start, Nigeria were undone in the latter half, suggesting there are two separate problems. That only makes the malaise more difficult to diagnose, but boil it down to its first principles, and tightening up at the back is imperative.
Quite what that would entail with regard to the selection is tricky. The Super Eagles have not managed a clean sheet since the Afcon 2019 third-placed play-off, and have tried a number of different partnerships and configurations since then. The selection of Kevin Akpoguma, nominally a centre-back, at right-back was with a view to keeping things tighter, but it only led to even greater leakiness.
Perhaps the best move would be a reversion to a system with three centre-backs. Clearly, the absence of Wilfred Ndidi at the base of midfield caused Rohr problems last Friday, and so incorporating another central defensive presence might lend more stability. In order for that to work, however, Rohr will need to do away with a recent peccadillo of his.
Stop with the square pegs in round holes
The introduction of Akpoguma into the national team selection pool has elicited mixed reactions. While he is no doubt a talented defender, Rohr’s insistence upon jamming him into the first 11, even at the expense of more natural options, has been ham-fisted, and is reportedly the source of some dissatisfaction among the players.
The trip to Freetown should see either of Ola Aina or Tyronne Ebuehi restored to the starting line-up, and Akpoguma – if he is promised a spot by some divine right – utilized in the centre of defence in a back three.
Similarly, the role given to Ahmed Musa on Friday was ill-fitting: he was unable to use his pace (arguably his only remaining stand-out trait), and by dropping deep to play wall passes on the half-way line, he was rendered completely superfluous.
If, by virtue of being captain, he has to play, then it should be within a set-up that plays to his strengths. Else, what really is the point?
Give Paul Onuachu a chance to succeed
The unavailability, due to injury, of Victor Osimhen for the second leg should, in theory, provide another opportunity for Paul Onuachu to prove his worth upfront for the Super Eagles.
The Genk man divides opinion. Prolific for club, but almost hapless for country; naturally, there are concerns as to his suitability for Rohr’s attacking system, such as that is.
While it remains to be seen whether he can hack it at international level anyway, the least Rohr can do for him is to afford him a framework that somewhat approximates what he is used to. The sort of long passes that are meat and drink for a targetman may not be available, but it would be expedient to provide him with a strike partner, preferably one with the pace to latch on to his flicks and also threaten the Sierra Leone defence in the opposite direction.
That may be Musa again, or even Samuel Chukwueze, who displayed that sort of movement and acceleration to score the fourth goal in Benin City. Either way, if Onuachu is to be productive, he will need other attackers getting close to him and preventing opposing centre-backs from isolating him.