As the Super Eagles trade tackles with the Vatreni of Croatia in their opening match in Group D of the 2018 World Cup, Nigeria’s chances of making an indelible impact on the tournament will hinge on a positive result from this match.
The Super Eagles must from the blast of the whistle, play as a functional cohesive unit against the Vatreni to stand a chance of getting a victory or a draw against the equally ambitious Eastern European team. A draw will even suffice.
This is where we expect Coach Gernot Rohr to adopt a tactical formation that will be needed to neutralise the match plan of Coach Zlatko Dalic, whose team boast of a hugely talented players.
With Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic calling the shots for the Vatreni in the midfield, the Croats would likely have lots of possession and look to exploit the “numerous chances’’ that may come their way.
The Nigerian defence-line must, therefore, play with maximum focus against the attacking forays of Mario Mandzukic, Andrej Kramaric to save themselves the embarrassment of conceding needless goals in the must win match.
The Super Eagles must also look to exploit goal scoring opportunities that may come their way, but the likely attack-line of Odion Ighalo, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi must take advantage by being clinical in front of goal.
The actual battle in the showdown between Nigeria and the Croats will be fought in the midfield area of the pitch, where Mikel Obi, Wilfred Ndidi and John Ogu/Oghenekaro Etebo must impose themselves on their opponents.
Our team must learn how to defend against set pieces and master the art of converting dead-ball situations into goals… hopefully Rohr must have drilled the rudiments of the techniques into our players.
Incidences of unruly acts during the match must be avoided because the moment any of our player bags yellow/red card definitely blunts the team’s chances, especially now that the Video Assisted Referee has been introduced.
Offensive players must play selflessly, by falling back to defend when the team is under pressure; and attack-minded wing-backs must learn to fall back to their positions and deny the Croats undue advantages.
The 4-3-3 formation is the usual match plan for the Vatreni, but they sometimes switch to the 4-2-3-1 and if need be to the 4-4-2 midfield diamond.
Rohr on his part has toyed with different formations like the 3-5-2, but he will likely opt for his trusted 4-2-3-1, based on defensive resilience of the Troost Ekong, Kenneth Omeruo et al and efficient counters by Victor Moses and others.
The Nigerian national team may not have played well in their tune-up matches before the World Cup, those matches were more of rehearsals through which Rohr must have worked on players’ combinations and tactics.
In such a scenario, what really counts at the end of the day is the actual performance of the team in the main event, which the host nation vividly illustrated in their opening 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia.
In the buildup to the World Cup, the Sbornaya were so poor that they became “orphans’’ of sorts; but their enthralling victory against Ouilad Al Sahraa (the Sons of the Desert) in front of President Vladimir has suddenly changed their fortunes.
Likewise, the Super Eagles must use the 2018 World Cup to prove to sceptics and bookmakers wrong, that Nigeria is not in the tournament to make up the numbers, and the players must strive to advance beyond the usual round of 16.
Although the Super Eagles are a team greater than the sum of their parts, their strengths are pinned on the individual brilliance of a few.
But Rohr always looks to the collective, though, preferring in public to downplaying the importance of those who truly stand out.
“We do not have such great players as Kanu or Okocha, who then shone, but the strength of this team is teamwork,’’ Rohr said in a recent interview with Przeglad Sportowy.
He added: “Our captain, Mikel John Obi or Victor Moses are not the players who will decide the fate of the game themselves, like the stars from the 90s.”