The journey or how far a team will go in a tournament like the World Cup starts with the first game. Once the first three points are in the bag then, the team will approach the other or subsequent games with ease, less stress and anxiety-free focus.
Suffice this to mean that Super Eagles are condemned to win their opening game of Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup Croatia.
Of course, the Europeans who once paraded the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki among other great stars of world football are a crack side and a potential threat to any team in this tournament but truth is like any other team, they are very beatable.
The following steps and cautions are rolled into a dossier of advice I can give to the Gernot Rohr team after seeing few games of Croatia leading to the World Cup.
1. CHOKE OR PACK THE MIDFIELD
This tie will be decided in the midfield or by the midfielders if you like. The trio of Luca Modric of Real Madrid, his club mate, Mateo Kovacic and FC Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic make this department the strongest and deadliest for the Croats.
Croatia on account of the skill, talent and leadership role of their playmaker and captain, Modric prefer most times to operate from or launch their attack from the midfield where they have highly talented and creative players led by the Real Madrid ball-carrier.
If Rohr plays a 4-4-2 formation which packs the midfield, it would be difficult for the wall splitting passes from Croatia midfielders. Eagles must make them look or hunt for the ball.
2. NUETRALIZE LUCA MODRIC
If Rohr packs his midfielder with four players, one of the four who must be a defensive midfielder or man marker must keep an eye on both the ball and Luca Modric but especially the Croatian skipper.
Trail and tail him. No tugging, no pulling of shirt, no kicking to avoid unnecessary yet expensive booking. But pile the pressure on him by reaching the ball first before him if possible. This has always frustrated Modric and forced even Zinedine Zidane to substitute him in the colours of the Galacticos. No room for lapses, excuses or error. Breath down his neck
3. THE MAN ON MODRIC
Knowing that Luca Modric is gifted with sublime skills, runs, great twists and turns both on and off the ball, it is expected that the player to be assigned to him should be equally quick, smart with high recovery rate. That player naturally should be Wilfred Ndidi looking at the composition of Super Eagles midfield.
However, a player with physical presence and attributes is also required for this job. He should be John Ogu who notably is the biggest of all the middle men of the Eagles. It is upto Rohr to know and pick his midfielders based on form, fitness and if they are all injury free. For me, two out of Ogu, Onazi and Ndidi should do the job while John Obi Mikel and Joel Obi do the playmaking. Mikel actually needs a free role in a game of this capacity.
4. AERIAL PROWESS OF CROATIA GOALIE IS SUSPECT
Perhaps Rohr will employ the services of taller attackers for the Croatia game. This is because their first choice goalkeeper appears suspect when it comes to aerial balls.
Sadly, Eagles have only one tall attacker among the pack. He is Simeon Nwankwo. If there were two or more very tall forwards it would have been better. However, Nwankwo should be fielded for his height and physical attributes to help in poaching goals through the head or headers in this game. Any other striker could pair him to pick up or knock in loose balls if or when Simy goes in aerial contest in this 4-4-2 formation.
5. CORNER KICKS & SET PIECES NEEDED
Given that the Croatian goalkeeper’s aerial ability is suspect, Super Eagles would need to commit their opponents to concede cornerkicks. This will help fetch crises situations for Croatia thus creating the chances for Eagles to score.
But in committing Croatia to concede loads of cornerkicks, Rohr must ensure his wingbacks posses the energy of joining the attack with overlapping runs occasionally to put the pressure on the opponents. This also suggests that must play attacking football all through the duration of the game.
Rohr should be grooming someone or a few players in the area of taking set pieces. Sadly, Eagles don’t seem to have any player capable of converting two set pieces out of 10 into goals. This is where teams like Brazil, Argentina and Spain are very dangerous. With a goalkeeper who is suspect in the opponents goal, set piece specialist could win the game for Eagles. A player who could bend the ball above the wall to give the goalkeeper nightmare.
6. EAGLES’ ATTACKERS MUST COMMIT CROATIAN DEFENDERS
Rohr must not forget that his attackers or playmakers must be skillful and in this game they should hold the ball, tease the opponents defence line and commit them to foul them for opportunities of set pieces.
Set pieces do not fall from the sky. You create them through fleet-footed players in the mould of Austin Okocha. But Rohr has Joel Obi. On a good day, he could do the job, it’s just that he us injury prune. If Rohr can revive the Mikel of Holland 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup who Jose Mourinho turned to a defensive midfielder then, Croatia are in serious trouble because Mikel can rove, carry the ball, tease opponents to attract fouls and set pieces.
7. BIG DUTY DAY FOR EKONG, BALOGUN
The duo of William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun will have big jobs to do in coming to seek for goals during cornerkicks. They are as tall as Simmy and should join him regularly in Croatia box during cornerkicks.
8. TAKE THE FIGHT TO CROATIA
Super Eagles must adopt an attacking style in this game. No dull moments, no sitting back and no soaking or containing of pressure from the opponents. Eagles must not wait for counter-attacks before surging forward. The order is very simple, take the fight to the opponents.
9. CROATS ARE NOT TOO PHYSICAL
Eagles midfielders and defenders must avoid heavy body contacts as Croats fall a lot to attract bookings against their opponents thereby creating rooms for a player or players to be sent off.
However, Eagles must be very robust in their play to help bully the Croats, pin them down and whip them silly.
10. CROATS ATTACKERS ARE GOOD AERIALLY
The defence line of Eagles led by Ekong and Balogun must be on their toes. Mikel has some height and will be needed always to cover in the defence if the need arises.
Eagles must cut off pullouts, crosses and cornerkicks. Ekong and Balogun must keep an eye on Mario Manduzki.
●Best of luck guys. You can beat Croatia, and, very silly too.
By Desmond Ekwueme