The World Cup, Russia 2018 was over for the Super Eagles of Nigeria when they fell, albeit gallantly to a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina side in the city of St Petersburg.
The Eagles only needed a draw to go through to the second round but conceded a second goal in the dying minutes of the game.
Although the Super Eagles were the first African country to qualify for Russia 2018 even with a game to spare, a spate of poor results in the run-up to the World Cup did realistic lower the expectation of the fans.
The Eagles beat Argentina in 2017 by four goals to two, in the next match against Poland, they won by a lone goal scored by from the penalty spot by Victor Moses.
Despite the win, it was evident that the Super Eagles lacked finesse and were not in shape for the big stage. Then came the England challenge at Wembley in the eve of the tournament.
Gernot Rohr’s Eagles looked lethargic in the first half of the game but managed to get back into the game in the second half when the coach changed the formation from the regular four-four-two to a three-five-two.
That switch showed that potentially the Super Eagles could regroup and do well even against bigger teams as they reduced the deficit by a goal scored by Alex Iwobi.
There were other losses against Serbia (in March) and against the Czech Republic (in June) as well. Nevertheless, fans believed that at the tournament proper it will be different as a lot will be at stake to motivate the players to do well.
The first game at Russia 2018 for the Super Eagles in the city of Kaliningrad against Croatia exposed the Super Eagles as slow starters.
Even though, they did not play poorly like they did in the first half against England at Wembly, the Eagles could not create chances.
Odion Ighalo who was playing as a lone man upfront was scarcely fed the ball and was isolated for the whole time he was on the pitch.
The Super Eagles team was playing Alex Iwobi on the wings instead of in the middle where he could have used his pace against the ageing Croatian midfield with the likes of Rakitic and Mandzukic dictating the pace of the game.
The loss to Croatia was only because they Super Eagles could not create to hurt to the Croatians. In the entire duration of the game, the scoreline did not actually reflect the dominance of the Croatians.
Even though they scored two goals against Nigeria. The first was an own goal scored inadvertently by Etebo. The second goal was from curious penalty conceded by Troost-Ekong.
In the entire duration of the game Croatia did not score from a shot on target against Nigeria. This shows that playing against the very best in the world, the Super Eagles defence was great but for the few flaws.
The loss to Croatia was a shortcoming from the bench. The formation was wrong, and so was the selection of players for that game.
Shehu Abdullahi was great during the qualifiers but had lost form. His performance during the friendly games showed that he was not having his great moments, but the coach kept fate with him.
It meant that Victor Moses had to run down the flanks and track back to defend since Abdullahi was just so poor on the night.
Team captain, Mikel Obi was playing as the creative man for the team, but he lacked the pace to move forward. Iwobi was playing on the left side of the midfield but did not have a good game either.
Despite the loss, the industry of OhenekaroEtebo was noticeable. At the heart of the defense, Balogun was in charge and showed great aerial qualities as well as ability to marshal the defense.
Apart from conceding a silly penalty, Troost Ekong also had a good game. The partnership between Balogun and Troost-Ekong was justified on the night by their displays.
While the Super Eagles lost their first match to Croatia from the bench, the second game was won from the bench. Coach Rohr effected a change of formation to a three-five-two.
The game was very important for the Super Eagles as a loss against Iceland (a country whose population is about five times or even more less than Lagos) will mean that the Super Eagles cannot advance to the round of 16.
Two goals from Ahmed Musa were all that it took to give Nigeria hope of qualifying for the second round of the World Cup.
The team started the first half poorly but gained confidence in the second half. The introduction of Tyrone Ebuehi as the left winger added more vibe to the attack of the Super Eagles from the left flank.
Omeruo’s introduction in the three-man central defence team also turned out to be a right choice by the coach.
Playing Argentina in the last group D game was going to be a huge task as the Messi-inspired Argentina side required an outright win to advance to the next round while a draw was okay for Nigeria provided Iceland did not win Croatia by a heavy margin.
Surprisingly, Coach Rohr left out Alexander Iwobi and opted for the trio of Mikel, Etebo and Ndidi who are all defensive midfielders.
The Super Eagles lacked that creativity and could only manage to cancel out Messi’s one-goal lead courtesy of a well-taken penalty by Victor Moses.
A chance for Nigeria lead by a second goal was scuttled by OdionIghalo’s poor effort. Argentina broke the heart of Nigerian fans when Manchester United’s Rojo hey scored to give his country the lead in the dying minutes of the game.
It ended 2 goals in favour of Argentina and one goal for Nigeria. The Eagles, where were the best-dressed team to Russia out of the 32 participating countries, were on the way home and unlike the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Eagles were not going to the round of 16.
I will not consider the performance of the Super Eagles in Russia as poor. The boys played beyond expectations. Out of the 23 players of the Super Eagles in Russia, only Victor Moses is a regular started in a top club in Europe.
The other player in a top club, Alex Iwobi does not command a regular shirt at Arsenal. The current crop of players in the Super Eagles showed that they can up their game when the occasion demands.
However, there were certain players who should not have joined the party to Russia. This really affected the team as there were no game changers that could be sent from the bench or it could be that the coach did not know what to do as he often left his substitutions for the dying minutes of the game.
Ogenyi Onazi, Joel Obi, OdionIghalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, Shehu Abdullahi and Brian Idowu were not at their best form.
We did not get to see much of Simmy Nwankwo or John Ogu. In fact, Ogu, a natural left-footer ought to have been given some game time as the Eagles lacked threat from the left side of the play.
One must not forget the positives from the Super Eagles team. The goalkeeper, Francis Ozoho was brilliant in the three games. He was not at fault for any of the goals Nigeria conceded. He also showed great reflexes and put up several saves.
He has a great height for a goalkeeper and since he has age on his side, as he continues to mature, he will be pivotal in the strengthening of the team.
The box-to-box midfielder, Oghenkaro Etebo was superb in all the matches he played. I feel he should have waited for the World Cup to be over before signing the dotted lines for Championship side, Stoke City FC.
He surely will be a midfield dynamo for Nigeria. Players like Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Ahmed Musa, Tyrone Ebuehi and Alex Iwobi are the future of the Super Eagles.
I believe that Rohr is getting to know the team better even though I had expected him to learn more from the friendly games. He is a coach that listens to criticism.
Keeping him will ensure a smooth transition for the team. The team will learn from the experience at Russia and bounce back.