The morning after Thursday’s shock defeat at the hands of Central African Republic, for many fans of the Nigeria national team, assumed a very dream-like quality.
Much has been made of the fact Nigeria had previously not lost a home World Cup qualifier for 40 years, an entire generation witnessing the Super Eagles defeated on their own patch for the first time. However, even that piece of momentous history paled in comparison to the standing of the victor concerned; 1981’s defeat to Algeria stung and scarred, but it did at least come to the side that had contested the Africa Cup of Nations Final a year prior, and that would stun the mighty Germans a year on at the World Cup in Spain.
Central African Republic have no meaningful footprint of any kind in African football.
Think David against Goliath, but in this instance David with one hand tied behind his back and wearing a patch over one eye.
Still, the victory was comfortable and well earned. Gernot Rohr crowed after the game about missed chances, but the closest his side came was Victor Osimhen hitting the frame of the goal with a miscued cross. It was a siege, but one lacking in conviction, logic or contemplation and so easily rebuffed.
The visitors seemed clear in the conception of their own game plan, and took great care in implementing it.
The most damning aspect of the defeat was that, save for throwing on the entire bench’s worth of forwards, Nigeria failed to offer a different look at any point during the proceedings.
Instead, there was panic, a frenzied state that built confidence in the hearts and minds of the Wild Beasts and directly culminated in their late winner.
To finish the game with Ahmed Musa unconvincingly moonlighting as a quasi-midfielder, even if the score had remained goalless at the final blast of the referee’s whistle, would have been excellent validation for the Central African Republic’s efforts by itself.
So it is that Nigeria retain top spot in the group, but by a smaller margin than anyone would have envisaged after three matches: both Cape Verde and Central African Republic being only two points behind. This then imbues Sunday’s rematch with greater significance, as anything less than a win would see Cape Verde level up the points’ differential or even go top. It is now all so needlessly perilous.
However, that broader view is one which Rohr’s side cannot afford to take.
It would be helpful to tune out every other consideration, and reduce the occasion to a simple meeting of the respective teams. Within that dynamic, individual quality (let’s face it: that is the only edge, especially as Nigeria’s German boss has already shown himself to be tactically inferior to Raoul Savoy) should guarantee superiority nine times out of ten, especially with a couple of factors taken into account.
For one thing, by its very nature a performance like that from the visitors is unlikely to repeat itself, born as it was of a historic effort.
The hand has been played, and will have been noted by Rohr and his staff. In theory it will be a lot easier to assess (and access) any chinks in the armour and raise the stakes.
Also, the surface in Douala will offer more security underfoot, and make execution easier for Nigeria. The pitch at the Teslim Balogun Stadium was and has been a handicap, albeit a self-inflicted one. Creation is a more difficult, more precise action than destruction, and so on Thursday the bumpy terrain was the ally of the Central African Republic. This will not be the case in Cameroon on Sunday.
Of course, this just means there can be no excuses, and nowhere to hide for Nigeria and their 68-year-old coach should lightning strike twice.
That carries its own pressure, but also an imperative to be the protagonist on the day. The question though is: what exactly can Rohr do differently?
His midfield selection has already significantly hamstrung the team, limiting his range of solutions, and if Thursday taught anything, it is that more forwards into the fray is no answer in itself without the means to disrupt the opponent’s organisation and supply ammunition to them.
A three at the back system – preferably 3-4-3 – would seem a reasonable compromise, especially as Central African Republic showed little appetite for attacking through the wide areas in the first game. The task of creativity would then go onto the inside forwards, in the absence of a proper creator in the squad.
That is one solution of many possible, of course; what is clear is that Rohr must do something different in Douala. With two extra days of swotting under his belt, the German now faces probably the sternest examination of his time in charge of Nigeria, but from the unlikeliest of sources.