Nigeria's lightweight midfield a concern ahead of SA clash
Wilfred Ndidi's late caution against Libya in Sfax, his second yellow card in three days, was the first bad omen about the Super Eagles' midfield ahead of their trip to Johannesburg in November.
The card automatically ruled the Leicester City man out of the crucial Africa Cup of Nations qualifier away to South Africa. But after the reality of the hard-tackling Ndidi's suspension sunk in, it still appeared as though Nigeria had no cause to lose sleep.
They looked to have a large pool of midfielders to call upon, with notable stars returning from injury, in theory. There shouldn't have been any cause for an alarm. However, the 23-man team list coach Gernot Rohr released ahead of the Bafana Bafana encounter would suggest otherwise.
The German, who in the past stuck to a policy of inviting no less than six midfielders for any gathering, reduced that number to four for the double-header against Libya in October, and further took it a step-down by calling up only three players for matchday five in less than three weeks.
The trio listed for the trip are John Ogu, Stoke City's Oghenekaro Etebo, and Mikel Agu. The latter, who was cut from the 2018 FIFA World Cup squad on the eve of the tournament, makes a return to the team for a first time in five months.
Captain John Obi Mikel misses out on a call-up for a third successive month, despite returning to fitness, having skipped the previous national team assignments on account of injury.
Mikel featured for Tianjin TEDA in their last two matches against Shandong Luneng and Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League, and netted against the latter at the weekend, but remains unavailable by his own choice.
Ogenyi Onazi, another experienced member of the team, was surprisingly excluded, his first international snub in six years, despite making a full recovery from injury, as he played a combined 135 minutes in Trabzonspor's last two league matches in Turkey.
It does appear Ogu, a direct replacement for Ndidi, and Etebo are the preferred choices to fill the midfield slots, but should the present form of the Stoke number eight, who hasn't been listed in the Potters' last three matchday squads, be of concern?
While the selection will be straightforward for Rohr, his concern should be the options off the bench, in the event of an injury, a poor display, or the need for tactical reinforcement.
A decision to list two defenders, four forwards and not one midfielder on the standby list could be a disaster in the making, in the event any of the trio pulls out.
Another option, Abdullahi Shehu, has failed to recover from the injury sustained inside the opening 20 minutes against Libya in Uyo. So he misses out in addition to the suspended Ndidi, which further leaves the team thin in the middle of the park.
Considering the Group E encounter is an away game, and a point is likely good enough for leaders Nigeria to seal qualification to Cameroon next year, it seems odd Rohr selected nine forwards when he could have reserved one of those slots for a midfielder.
In a game where Nigeria could play the final 30 minutes chasing down the ball, closing spaces, and being put under considerable pressure in midfield, either of Anderson Esiti or Ifeanyi Matthew should have been perfect for the job.
Esiti, whose last Nigeria outing was against Zambia in Ndola in 2016, is built like a tank and is gradually getting back to his best form, and named in Gent's line-up for their last two games.
If Esiti is gradually finding his feet, then the reverse is the case for Lillestrom's Matthew, who is on the verge of having a perfect appearance league record for a second successive Norwegian season. The box-to-box midfielder, who was a member of the Golden Eaglets class of 2013, has featured in all 27 league matches this term, scoring four goals.
After surviving a late Libyan onslaught in Sfax, largely due to the midfield collapsing, a repeat performance at the FNB Stadium could have dire consequences. Rohr has to produce his best management game to get Nigeria over the line with his limited midfield numbers.