The Super Eagles gave many the hope that this might just be Nigeria’s best appearance at the World Cup.
From preparation to funding and even the hype around its playing jerseys, the Super Eagles looked destined to wow the world in Russia.
With Argentina and Iceland settling for a 1-1 draw in the Group D opener, many were already projecting to see the Eagles top the group after the first round of matches.
Alas! That was never the case as the high hopes nursed by many Nigerians and others across the world was vastly deflated after 90 minutes of action at the Kaliningrad Stadium.
For the benefit of hindsight, PREMIUM TIMES looks at FIVE THINGS learnt from the Croatia vs Nigeria Group D match.
Ighalo Not Best Forward Choice
While many will instantly kick against any talks of Kano Pillars’ Junior Lokosa being taken to the World Cup, he does what a striker is paid to do; score goals and presently has 19 goals from 22 games in the Nigeria League.
That cannot be said of Nigeria’s arrow head in the game against Croatia, Odion Ighalo who did not deliver; expectedly for some, as the goal drought in Nigeria’s colours continue for the 29-year old.
The last time Ighalo scored for Nigeria was in September 2017 during the World Cup qualifiers against Cameroon.
Saturday was Ighalo’s birthday and his debut appearance at the World Cup. The thinking was that the striker will want to make use of the auspice occasion to send a message. But that never happened as the China-based striker huffed and puffed till he was hauled off for Kelechi Iheanacho who admittedly did a better job despite playing for lesser time.
The usual argument always thrown in the defense of Ighalo is that he is not getting quality service from his teammates. Plausible as that might sound, the former Watford forward will need to also do more on his positioning to get the ball in the net.
Mikel Wrong For Creative Role
Though Mikel started his playing career as a creative midfielder, long years under Jose Mourinho and thereafter has seen Mikel metamorphose into a deeper role.
For whatever reasons, Rohr has stuck to Mikel Obi in the no. 10 position. But with this display, it is very difficult to see how Nigeria is going to create goal scoring opportunities.
Mikel’s tendency to drop deep really hurt the side as there was no creative outlet. For one who spent most of his career playing as a defensive midfielder, Rohr should perhaps consider restoring him to his normal holding midfield role as they will need a lot of creativity against Iceland and Argentina. Mikel offers control and calmness on the ball but his creative ability is suspect.
This fact was stated by one of Nigeria’s most creative player ever, Austin Okocha, who recommended Alex Iwobi for that role.
Poor Team Set Up
Why was Rohr not more positive in his approach to the Croatia game? He didn’t commit men forward, even when the Super Eagles were behind. One can see that from the team line-up and formation, they were setup cautiously, but surprisingly continued like that all the way until the end. Nigeria will need to tweak their formation and playing personnel to have a more positive outlook.
The best case scenario in the next step is to beat Iceland and hope Argentina don’t beat Croatia. That would mean a draw v Argentina would take Nigeria through.
Nigeria’s Inexperienced Defence Exploited
Poor marking from the Nigerian defence as they failed to pick out Rebic who flicked on Modric’s corner kick and led to the first goal. Also, a moment of naivety from William Ekong led to his manhandling of Mario Mandzukic in the box, leading to the penalty kick which was coolly slotted home by Modric for Croatia’s second. Nigeria’s vulnerability at set pieces resurfaced as seen in the friendly game against the Czech Republic.
Super Eagles delayed flight
It is not gratifying when a team is seen as slow starters who play better in second half or second games in a tournament.
That sadly is how the Nigerian team are; failing to win their opening game of a World Cup in their last four appearances.
The last time the Super Eagles won their first game of a World Cup campaign was 20 years ago in France 1998 when they beat Spain 3-2 in a thrilling encounter.
Their 2-0 loss to Croatia is also the first time Nigeria are losing to a European side in the opening game of the World Cup.
Their two wins in their opening day of a World Cup campaign have been against European opposition, but no luck this time.
The Super Eagles have now lost their last seven World Cup games when conceding the first goal.
Hope the Eagles’ flight will take off in full swing against Iceland with a good win and not crash against Argentina in the final group game.