By Kunle Adewale
Super Eagles of Nigeria will today face their first major test since booking a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia when they come against the fire power of the Three Lions of England at the Wembley Stadium, as part of their final preparations towards having a good showing at the Mundial.
Nigeriaâ€™s German-born Coach, Gernot Rohr, who is yet to prune down the team to 23 players from the 25 that hit London is expected to roll out his first team and give the countryâ€™s teeming fans a feel of what to expect in Russia.
It remains to be seen if Manager Gareth Southgate will take the opportunity to experiment against Nigeria, though it is more likely that he will begin to lay the groundwork for his starting XI in Russia, but he is likely to play a strong team, as he bids to prepare his side for their opening games next month.
Phil Jones, a defender Southgate is understood to rate highly, could be given the day off as his partner is due to give birth, while Nick Pope has expressed hope that he would be given a chance to shine.
Southgate has gradually imposed his own ideas and tactics on England since taking charge of the national team in November last year, such as a three-man defence and wingbacks with free reign to press further up the pitch, though it is unclear whether he plans to deploy other approaches against Nigeria.
Goals have been an issue for England of late, with the Three Lions having found the net six times in their last seven fixtures, but defensively, they have been solid and this has continued into Southgate’s tenure.
England have shipped just two goals in these games, dating back to their 2-1 victory over Slovakia in qualifying, a run which includes impressive shutouts against World Cup favourites Brazil and Germany.
Despite being unbeaten in eight games, the Three Lions remain a work in progress under the former centre-back, and as such, expectations are somewhat lower ahead of Russia than they were for previous tournaments.
Southgate has shown faith in youth and ushered out some of England’s old guard – including goalkeeper Joe Hart and defender Chris Smalling, but it remains to be seen whether he will field his strongest XI today or give prospects such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek a runout.
Following their 1-1 draw against Italy last time out, England find themselves placed 13th in the FIFA World Rankings, and that result marked a third stalemate in four matches against teams ranked above them.
This hints at subtle progress under Southgate, since the Three Lions have often struggled against higher-ranked sides, although that is a moot point where Nigeria are concerned since the Super Eagles are placed in 47th.
Nigeria are sure to provide a stern test for Southgate’s men when they travel to the English capital this weekend.
The Super Eagles were stellar during World Cup qualifying, becoming the first African nation to book a place in the tournament in early October 2017 when a strike from Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi secured a 1-0 victory over Zambia. That result gave Nigeria an unassailable 13-point lead at the top of Group B, dubbed Africa’s ‘group of death’ due to the inclusion of Algeria and continental champions Cameroon.
Like England, Gernot Rohr’s team are a young side full of energetic and talented prospects, although their form since World Cup qualification has dipped during a run of two wins in the last five internationals.
However, the Super Eagles’ away performances have been impressive during the last six months, as Rohr’s charges have won five of their last six on the road, a run which includes a 4-2 victory against Argentina in Russia.
Moses Simon, who travelled with the squad has undergone a late fitness test after sustaining a thigh injury, while a number of familiar faces will play at Wembley; John Obi Mikel is a former Chelsea player, Ahmed Musa, a former Leicester City player while Victor Moses currently represents the Blues, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi both ply their trade in the Premier League.
Meanwhile, Changchun Yatai striker, Odion Ighalo, is optimistic that Nigeria can beat the host, having recently recorded wins over heavyweights Argentina and Poland in pre-World Cup friendlies.
â€œEngland have a good team. All the players they have in the squad for the World Cup are playing for top teams in the Premier League. It is going to be a difficult game, a tough one. Being a friendly game, we will try to do well and correct some mistakes.
â€˜â€™It is going to be a tough one, but it is also possible for us to win, but the most important thing about the World Cup is not the money. But I must admit that the fact that the money is there and we know is there gives us extra energy, extra motivation in the preparations,â€ Kelechi Iheanacho told thenff.com.
â€œEnglandâ€™s players know us and we know them. It will be a good match,â€ he added.
Skipper Mikel John Obi told thenff.com: â€œWe are in England, a terrain most of us know too well. I was here and won several trophies with Chelsea, including the Champions League. It will be an interesting encounter on Saturday (today).â€
Meanwhile, Chelsea star, Victor Moses, has joined the team in London and took part in his first training session with the Super Eagles Wednesday afternoon.
England qualified for the World Cup with ease – sailing through a group also featuring Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia unbeaten, while Nigeria topped their group, besting Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, who drew with England at the 2010 tournament, to punch their ticket to Russia and, as such, this encounter with Nigeria is an intriguing one.
Momentum, of course, is key, and the Three Lions would do well to be wary, as Nigeria will also be looking to kick off their preparations with a bang.
The Three Lions will face Panama, Tunisia and Belgium in their World Cup group in Russia, while the Super Eagles face Argentina, Iceland and Croatia. Gareth Southgate’s side will also face Costa Rica before jetting off to the tournament, while Nigeria take on the Czech Republic.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi ,
William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Ola Aina, Kenneth Omeruo, Bryan Idowu, Chidozie Awaziem, Abdullahi Shehu, Elderson Echiejile, Tyronne Ebuehi
John Mikel Obi, Ogenyi Onazi, John Ogu, Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo, Joel Obi, Mikel Agu,
Odion Ighalo, Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses (Chelsea, England), Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Simeon Nwankwo
Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Danny Rose, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker,
Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph, Jesse Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck, Jamie Vardy
Fixture: England v Nigeria
Time: 5: 15pm