It is just days, hours in fact, to Nigeria’s opening game at Russia 2018 against Croatia and results from the two friendlies have dampened expectations from the Nigerian football fans.
Adding to this is Croatia’s 2-1 victory over Senegal on Friday evening.
The players don’t look ready, the manager doesn’t speak ready and it looks like the Super Eagles will prove easy fodder for the Croats but I have a different mindset – we can still beat Croatia if we get our tactics right.
The most modern football tactic is the high press, which Croatia is committed to because of the expertise in their midfield, led by the irrepressible Luka Modric.
Against Nigerian defenders, who looked jittery every time they saw an English player racing towards them on June 2 at Wembley Stadium, it looks like a template for disaster.
There is though a way to counter this threat. Oghenekaro Etebo!
The 23-man Eagles’ squad comprises of a lot of hard-working individuals, with only three real ball artists – Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, and Etebo. If they are properly positioned then the Eagles stand a chance of beating Croatia but the most important player in this arrangement will be Etebo.
Just as Modric dictates the tempo and rhythm of the Croats, Etebo must have the licence to carry the ball out of midfield into the attack for the Eagles. Is this because Ogenyi Onazi had a bad game against England? No.
The main reason is that Etebo looks like the only midfielder in the Nigerian ranks that can run, pass, and tackle in higher percentages.
Mikel can pass, tackle [sometimes] but he can’t run; Wilfred Ndidi can pass run and tackle but his passing ability is still terrible while Onazi can tackle and pass a bit, but he can’t run for his life.
This means Etebo must play in front of the defence – with protection provided by Ndidi. Etebo, with his skill set, can escape the first press, which is the most important for the Croats and set Nigeria on the counter immediately.
Against Brazil, Croatia was successful in denying space to the five-time World Champions but as soon as they got to grips with it, they brought Coutinho closer to their defence and they could spread the ball to the wings.
It will need some luck but with Etebo on the pitch, the Eagles stand a better chance of getting the ball to the Moses and Iwobi to create some magic.