GERNOT ROHR and his Super Eagles couldn’t have wished for a kinder and more amenable opposition in their first game, post AFCON 2019 than Ukraine.
The jury was out on the Franco-German to see how his team would fare immediately after the international retirements by captain John Obi Mikel and top goal scorer Odion Ighalo. The forced absence of center back Kenneth Omeruo and winger Ahmed Musa further robbed the team of valuable experience and the Eagles were looking rather ‘fragile.’ But at halftime of the international friendly in Dnipro, the score was Ukraine 0, Nigeria 2 as Rohr’s young replacements announced their arrival on the big stage.
I immediately put out a tweet on my impression of the first 45 minutes: “HT: UKR 0-2 NGA. One debutant goal; one debut senior goal; great saves by goalkeeper; all-round dominant #SuperEagles performance. Bodes well for the future.”
The debutant was Joe Aribo, the Rangers of Scotland lad who had a dream start scoring Nigeria’s early opening goal; the debut senior goal went to Victor Osimhen from the penalty spot; while the previously much maligned but improving Francis Uzoho pulled a couple of point-blank saves that kept the Eagles ahead at halftime. Ola Aina at right back, Alex Iwobi at Number 10 and the tricky Samuel Kalu on the left side of midfield were the other players that really caught my eye in that splendid Eagles display in the first half.
Thanks to an adventurous Ukraine, the Eagles enjoyed so much space and time on the ball to express themselves which was quite endearing. Coach Andriy Shevchenko would reveal later that he had fielded an experimental side with only four first team regulars. While that does not diminish the Eagles’ performance, it does partially explain the naivety and generosity of the normally well-organized European host in defending against Nigeria.
Before the second half got underway, I put out another tweet: “Game well set up for @NGSuperEagles to shine. Ukraine slow in the build-up, leaving kilos of space at the back, wide open for counters. Will they change tact in the second half?”
Not much changed at the back for Ukraine in the second half as they continued to cave in to the speedy Nigerian strikers who, unfortunately, failed to take advantage to extend their lead. And they were made to pay when the hosts scored twice in quick succession, the equalizer a controversial handball which the assistant referee inexplicably convinced the center referee to allow.
At the final whistle, I put out yet another tweet to recap: “It’s a moral draw for @NGSuperEagles. Ukraine’s equalizer should have been chalked off for handball. However, good outing overall by our young lads. The future looks bright.”
Some Rohr critics have commented that Osimhen’s performance against Ukraine “proves” that he should have been picked ahead of Ighalo at the 2019 AFCON. Aside the fact that just one game is inadequate to reach such a conclusion, the truth is that defenses at AFCON, with a lot at stake, were tighter and far more organized than Ukraine presented against the Eagles. But I will allow the hypothetical critique to ride.
Rorh was also roundly criticized for his “habitual” late substitutions. Check out a paraphrase of some comments on social media: He should have fielded this, he should have substituted that. Why wait till the 80th minute for substitutions in a friendly game? Why not try out the other goalkeepers on the bench? This coach is incapable of reading a game. He should have been sacked after the AFCON! He should be sacked now!!!!
After more than 30 years writing football, I’m used to such passionate opinions coming from “soccer experts.” In Nigeria today, there are about 200 million of them. Unfortunately, it’s the opinion of only one person that counts in team selection and substitutions: the coach.
Coming on a night when the under-23 Eagles whitewashed Sudan 5-0 in Asaba earlier in the day to advance to the CAF U-23 Olympic qualifying tournament in November 5-1 on aggregate, the senior team’s 2-2 draw away to Ukraine completed a glorious day for Nigerian football and underlined the rich reservoir of youthful talents coming through for the Super Eagles.
Gernot Rohr may not be the best coach on the planet, but the stability and incremental progress that the team has achieved under his watch is commendable. The latest performance against Ukraine is evidence that the future is bright. Thanks to Ukraine for being such generous hosts in Dnipro.