With Croatia’s 2-0 Win, Nigeria Walks a Tightrope in Group D

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*Rohr says Eagles have no option but to defeat Iceland

Duro Ikhazuagbe in Kaliningrad

After two silly mistakes by Oghenekaro Etebo and William Troost-Ekong earned Croatia a deserved 2-0 victory against the Super Eagles at the Kaliningrad Stadium in Russia on Saturday night, Nigeria walks a tightrope qualifying from Group D of the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia.

First, It was Etebo who deflected Juventus forward, Mario Mandzukic’s goal-mouth scramble from Real Madrid man, Luka Modric’s corner kick beyond the reach of goalkeeper Francis Uzoho for Croatia’s opening goal. And then, William Troost-Ekong wrestled down Mandzukic for the penalty converted by Modric.

Eagles Technical Adviser, Gernot Rohr, aptly captured the situation Nigeria now finds herself following the one-all draw played earlier by favourites Argentina and Iceland.

“With Croatia now leading the group on three points and Argentina and Iceland on one point each, we now do not have the option but to win our next match against Iceland on Friday,” was how the Franco-German gaffer summed up the herculean task faced by Nigeria at the post-match conference after the clash here in Russia.

He admitted it was disappointing for Nigeria to have lost the game Eagles had hope to pick atleast a point from before meeting Iceland. “It is disappointing for us to lose the match. However, Croatia had a better team than us on the night. I must also admit that some of my players made silly mistakes. Both the first and second goals came through corner kicks. Yes, there were some calls that were questionable but we have to accept this defeat and move on.”

Rohr insisted that the hope of Nigeria qualifying from the group was not lost yet as two other teams in the group have just one point each. Our future in the competition is still in our hands. We can do it because we have the youngest team in the competition and have the energy to pursue the dream of making it out of the group stage even if it is a difficult one,”

“We can still qualify if we win our next match and get at least a draw in the last game against Argentina to end on four points.”

On the blunt Eagles attack that was completely blunt on the night, the coach said: “Nobody will be happy when the attackers cannot put the ball behind the net. Alex Iwobi tried at the beginning but lacked the cutting edge. He played very well in the three weeks we were in camp before coming here. He deserved to start the game.

Ahmed Musa came in the second half and brought his speed to wear down the Croatian defence line. Now, Musa has the chance to start the next game. It was the first time that we played like that (poorly) in the midfield with Wilfred Ndidi, (Oghenekaro) Etebo and Obi Mikel. Ndidi was just coming back from injury. Because of that, there was a bit of complicity in that department. Perhaps, they need a little bit more of time to get it right.”

Rohr also did not mince words in insisting that Eagles were naïve on set pieces which Croatian Captain, Luka Modric, and his men in the midfield capitalised to torment Nigerian defence. “We are going to work on that to ensure that we are not caught off guard like it happed in this our first match.”

On Mikel’s poor role in the offensive midfield position, Rohr said since arriving at the job, the Tianjin Teda star has always played in that place. “Mikel’s role all through the qualifying series to the World Cup was going on very well. The team was built around him. I know that he also played before in defensive midfield. In China I know sometimes he plays in the offensive and at times in the defensive. When he has the ball everybody is offensive and if defending everyone fall back to defend. Mikel tried his best but when playing a packed Croatian midfield that have Modric and Ivan Rakitic then you need to up your game to stay alive. They play these roles in Real Madrid and FC Barcelona respectively. So when you start to compare that with how our midfielders play in their clubs, then there is a big problem.”

He concluded by stressing that Eagles must have learnt some good lessons from the defeat.

“I know that both Iceland and Argentina are very good teams but I believe my players have learnt lessons from the defeat and be able to play better against these our two next opponents.”

Croatia moved to the top of Group D of the 2018 World Cup on three points with Argentina and Iceland on one point each from the one-all draw.