Five areas Nigeria must improve before their World Cup opener

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Nigeria suffered a second straight pre-World Cup friendly defeat against Czech Republic on Wednesday, the Super Eagles’ third loss in five build-up games in 2018.

In this feature, KweséESPN outlines five areas Gernot Rohr must improve if Nigeria are not to carry their underwhelming form into their sixth World Cup appearance.

Set pieces continue to be a big Achilles’ heel for Nigeria, both offensively and defensively.

In a team comprising a decent number of physically imposing players, it is something of a mystery how the Super Eagles have failed to be a dominant force in the opposition area when attacking set pieces.

Likewise, the team have struggled when defending, as more often, they are always second to aerial balls, which have cost them dearly in the build-up matches against Serbia, England and Czech Republic.

Rohr must work on the team’s concentration when defending set pieces, as they will be embarrassed by more clinical opposition at the World Cup.

He must also place more emphasis on set-piece deliveries and routines on the training ground, because if properly replicated on matchday, these could be Nigeria’s saving grace if they exhaust other goalscoring options.

Who starts at right-back? Now this is a question that wasn’t a concern a month or so ago, but the performances in the last three friendly games might make the coach have a rethink.

Shehu Abdullahi appeared to have locked down the starting right-back shirt, as he featured in all six World Cup qualifying games, starting four, and more importantly laid on the assist for Alex Iwobi’s winner against Zambia to send Nigeria through to Russia.

However, two factors could put Shehu’s place in the line-up under serious threat; Tyronne Ebuehi’s strong performances in recent friendlies, and Nigeria performing better following a switch to a 3-5-2 formation in the second-half of their last two friendlies.

While Shehu is understandably more defensively oriented due to his training as a natural holding midfielder, new Benfica signing Ebuehi loves to plough forward, dribble, deliver decent crosses and has an impressive recovery rate, attributes which have ensured he’s caught the eye.

Does Rohr opt for Ebuehi and/or consider a shift in formation, or does he stick with the tried-and-tested Shehu?

Goalscoring: The Eagles’ lack of goals might not necessarily be at the top of issues facing the team, but if not fixed, could be the greatest undoing of a talented Nigeria side as was the case in 2002.

A return of three goals – one from the spot – in the last five games comes in stark contrast to 11 goals in qualifying.

It doesn’t bode well, and Rohr must decide why the goals have dried up since an impressive four-goal haul against Argentina seven months ago.

Odion Ighalo has cut an isolated and frustrated figure, which was exaggerated by Brian Idowu ignoring him twice when in a better scoring position against the Czech Republic.

Since his dominant showing and goal nine months ago against Cameroon in Uyo, Ighalo has failed to find the back of the net for Nigeria in six successive games, culminating in a 449-minute barren spell.

Kelechi Iheanacho hasn’t fared any better lately, despite a blistering start to his international career which saw him score seven goals in his first 10 Super Eagles’ matches, and he’s only managed one goal in his last seven Nigeria games.

Does two-cap Simy Nwankwo, who is yet to get off the mark, represent a legitimate starting option in Russia?

The midfield combination: Just like the right-back position, the midfield wasn’t an area of concern for Nigeria, until it crumbled in a shambolic first-half showing against England.

The midfield consists of players with standout individual qualities, but Rohr may not yet have found a way to get the best out of John Obi Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi.

Mobility seems to be an essential ingredient for whoever Rohr decides to hand the ‘Third Man’ role to, a view supported by Nigeria Football Federation Technical Director Bitrus Bewarang.

“I feel that we need to get the right combination in our midfield,” he told journalists, as per Vanguard. “We need speed and more mobility in the midfield so that the attack could function better.”

Start strongly: The World Cup allows for a maximum of three substitutions, and Nigeria will not have the luxury of turning games around in the second period with three to six half-time changes as they have done during the friendlies.

Rohr must ensure the Super Eagles are out of the blocks quickly in Russia, in contrast to the sluggish starts in recent pre-tournament fixtures.

If they appear again like a rabbit in the headlines once the opening whistle has been blown, the Eagles could be on an early flight back to Abuja airport.

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