By the end of matchday two of the Africa Cup of Nations, a Round of 16 matchup between Nigeria and Cameroon was likely the furthest thing from anybody’s mind, as these two giants of African football looked poised to top their groups.
Nigeria were sitting pretty in Group B after gleaning six points of out of six. A final group game against Madagascar appeared little more than a formality to seal group leadership, as the Super Eagles only required a result to assure themselves top spot.
The Indomitable Lions did not have quite the same certainty, even though they led their own group, requiring a win in their own final group match against Benin.
It all looked pretty straightforward.
And then they both fluffed things up. Royally. Starting with Nigeria. The Eagles looked anything but super as they slunk to a 2-0 defeat against Madagascar, a country with few professional players. The result left both countries in stunned disbelief.
Two days later, defending champions Cameroon completed their part of the bizarre bargain by being held to a 0-0 draw against Benin.
However, these issues will be of little concern to the current generation of players, all of whom will now be under some pressure to advance on Saturday.
It is especially true for Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr. Sources have told ESPN that the German’s job is hanging on a semifinal thread, meaning he has to negotiate a way past not just Cameroon but also possibly hosts and title favorites Egypt.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr looks worried, and if sources are to believed, he should be.
Cameroon are the immediate threat, and there is no escaping the win-or-go-home pressure that hangs over the squad. So what do Rohr and his team have to do?
Pick the right team
Nigeria’s doomed game against Madagascar began with the selection. Having qualified for the knockout phase, Rohr seemed to underestimate the islanders, despite having studied their games from the qualifiers and admitting they were a strong team.
Starting the languid duo of John Obi Mikel and John Ogu in midfield against such a dynamic, high-pressing opposition was an invitation for disaster. A fit and in-form Mikel may just have pulled it off with the energy of Oghenekaro Etebo beside him, but the current version of him just could not. And when he picked up a knee injury during the game, all was lost. By the time Rohr introduced Wilfred Ndidi, it was too late.
Against Cameroon, Rohr can afford no such flights of fancy. Starting his strongest team is a no-brainer. Restoring Kenneth Omeruo to the starting lineup is imperative. As is bringing back the energy and tackling of Ndidi to join up with Etebo.
Restoring Wilfred Ndidi to the starting XI will bring energy and pace against Cameroon
And why, in the name of Pele, has Henry Onyekuru not seen minutes at this tournament? He surely has to have a starting spot in the wide areas, along with Ahmed Musa. His speed, his balance, his ability to pop up in the right areas of the box and finishing must be something to consider.