- Nigeria must beat Argentina to seal knockout round spot
- Super Eagles coach Rohr previews match in exclusive interview
- Rohr says: "We're ambitious underdogs"
By Annette Braun with Nigeria
From Gabon to Niger, Burkina Faso and now Nigeria, Gernot Rohr has been head coach at an African national team since 2010. The German tactician, who lives in France, has taken the Super Eagles to the verge of qualifying for the Round of 16 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, where they must now beat Argentina in their final group fixture in order to seal their spot in the knockout stages. Rohr chatted with FIFA.com about his young charges' determination, bringing bad runs to an end and the dream of reaching the next phase of the tournament.
After losing the opening game against Croatia, Nigeria played very well against Iceland, especially in the second half. How did that change come about?
Gernot Rohr: It's always difficult when you lose your first match but we didn't lose our good spirit or our optimism. We conceded two unfortunate goals against Croatia but we didn't play badly. The team showed character after that.
How do you mean?
Despite the huge pressure of expectation, it's important that the joy of participating at a World Cup remains tangible in every training session. It's easy to show solidarity when you win but your real character only comes out when you lose. The team worked brilliantly after our disappointing start and everyone continued to pull in the same direction. That's something I value greatly.
Did the switch to a 3-5-2 formation contribute to the improved display against Iceland?
Iceland have a different style of play to Croatia and so we adapted accordingly. We wanted Victor Moses to exert greater pressure on the right with runs from deep. John Obi Mikel had a more defensive role in midfield, which meant he could use his vision to good effect in our build-up play and also organise the team. That leadership was especially important for our two youngsters in central midfield, Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi.
Etebo and Ndidi are two examples of youngsters in your squad, which has the lowest average age in the whole tournament. How does that shape your work?
If you have a young team then you have to be patient and accept that mistakes will happen because they're part and parcel of the game. They want to learn as much and as quickly as possible, and the World Cup is a good opportunity for them to gain experience and to develop. Even between our first and second games I could see a learning process taking place. The team will get better again going into the third match.
A place in the Round of 16 is at stake in the game against Argentina. Given that Nigeria have never beaten La Albiceleste in a World Cup fixture, what gives you cause for optimism this time?
Runs like that have to come to an end at some point! We're confident because we beat Argentina in a friendly last year. We were 2-0 down at half-time but went on to win 4-2. Lionel Messi didn't play in that game but we scored four wonderful goals. That gives the boys hope. We're ambitious underdogs; Argentina are definitely the favourites.
Argentina have not yet managed to find their form at the tournament though.
You have to put Argentina's so-called weakness into perspective. They had bad luck with the penalty in their first game, and the outcome would've been different if that had gone in. They've got one of the best players in the world and have unbelievable quality throughout the team. But it just goes to show that you can't plan for everything. That's part of the game's appeal.
How can your team counter that?
With youthful abandon, enthusiasm and desire. Most of our players want to get to where the Argentinians already are: the very top. The whole world will be watching this game and it's a chance to show what we're capable of.
How much of an impact will nerves have on the match?
I hope the players won't get too nervous. We're doing everything we can to make sure we don't lose our sense of freedom, even with such intense focus and determination on the game.
What would reaching the next round mean to Nigeria?
It would be fantastic for our young team if we progress to the knockout stages. We went into this group bottom of the pile, so our initial aim is to finish anywhere but last. It would be great if we finished second and we could then fulfil our dream of facing France in the last 16.