’ SULAIMAN ALAO here presents the details of the Rohr’a responses to the questions asked during the elaborate Zoom session on Thursday. The explains how he assembled the 26 players currently camped in Austria for two international friendlies against Algeria and Tunisia, and challenges faced and progress he hopes to achieve with the new players invited.
What are your expectations for these games. What do want to see from your players and your team?
Rohr: I want to see good football. I want to see the same spirit we had long time before in last games. I want to see also new faces, like you know we have eight new players invited in the list of 26.
It was interesting to discover these new players, we’ve already seen a little bit in the training sessions. But the game is different.
We are preparating for the AFCON and looking forward to the World Cup. So these two games [Vs Algeria and Tunisia] will be very interesting, like a test for us, for our players so the results is not the most important, it’s a preparation for the future.
As much as these games are for the future, you are going to be without your top scorer for the qualifiers, Osimhen. Will his absence in any way affect your approach to the games?
We called Paul Onuachu who is scoring a lot of goals at the moment for his club, Genk. We also called [Cyriel] Dessers who is a new player for the fist time. We have also Kelechi Iheanacho who is working hard in the training sessions and the other strikers like Ahmed Musa, and the wingers. We regret Osimhen’s absence, but we cannot change it.
You mentioned Paul Onuachu who is a tall striker and is good in the air. Will you be playing to his strength by instructing wingers to get the crosses in for him?
The team doesn’t have to adapt the game to one player, Onuachu. He has to adapt on the qualities. When we have the ball, we try to play short passes, with wingers playing quickly and switching from one side to the other and he has to integrate with his qualities and adapt.
We will not change our game only for him and make long kicks in the air, no. But of course, such can happen during the course of the game when our wingers might have to use long balls and crosses because he is good in the air. But largely, we want to play the ball on the ground and he has to adapt his game to the team.
I think Onuachu also has good shots, like I remember the goal he scored in Asaba. So for the moment, I think he is a striker that can help us replace Osimhen who already replaced Ighalo. Now we try to find a new solution with Onuachu and also Dessers. We will see in the last moment who will start.
Tobias Lawal was not originally invited but he is currently in the camp training with the team. What’s your impression about him? And do want to use this game to avenge the semi-final loss to Algeria at the last AFCON?
This is a friendly, a preparation game and definitely not a revenge game. When you test new players and you have a new midfield – unfortunately, it is not only Osimhen we are missing, but three of our best midfielders, so we have to see if we have players who can replace them very well, and still play good football.
So the objective like I said earlier is to prepare the team for the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers. We will need about 40 players and it will be interesting to see the new players including Lawal who has played for Austria before at U-20. Lawal still has issues with his passport and his case is different from Akpoguma.
Lawal wanted to come and see how we are working, if the group is okay and the atmosphere is good for him. He is not officially one for the list and he will not play in the games. But he is working with us, he is only 20 and has a good future in the game like Maduka and Alampasu.
We are playing these games with none of our usual three goalkeepers because Akpeyi had an injury and has not been playing. Uzoho is just coming back after long injury he had against Brazil. We couldn’t take Ezenwa because he has not been playing for a long time too. So it is interesting to see how things will go with the new three goalkeepers we have in camp.
Are you looking to invite goalkeeper Sebastian Osigwe who is also doing fine in FC Lugano.
We are following him. He played in Austria last season and has now moved to Switzerland. He might get his chance next time.
What’s your assessment of the national team. It’s about four years down the line, will you say you’re still rebuilding the squad or have you really found the style you want the Super Eagles to play?
We’ve found our style, everybody could see it in our last games. But it’s about 11 months since we last played and it’s not easy after such a long time to find the rhythm and combinations immediately, especially with new players coming in. We are missing five starting players – Etebo, Aribo, Ndidi, Uzoho and Osimhen -we are missing half of the team.
That is an opportunity to see the new boys and to try to find again our style of football which is about quick passes, few touches, movement, going on the wings, going straight to the goal and to close together between the defence and the strikers to be a block. And I hope we can find that rhythm, but we’ve had just five training sessions but three days is not enough to prepare against the African champions.
But there will be passion and I’m optimistic to see a team who will play together like I saw already in the training with the new players understanding our spirit and solidarity.
What’s your impression of the new players in camp during the training sessions?
Yakubu did very well during the training sessions and is progressing, he has a good future and we will get to see him in one of the two games.
Akpoguma is here and we are happy he has finally joined us after being with the young Germany selections, he is a very important new player for us and he is going to play.
We have Sanusi, a left-back, and he will start the game. He is a very strong and quick defender. And you know Algeria have Mahrez on the right side and the left-back need to be very strong. He is one of our two boys who will play in the Champions League – Sanusi with Porto and Frank Onyeka with Midtyjlland.
Onyeka is a defensive midfielder, he has good pressing and presence. He is quiet, but all the time available to play and get the ball, and to play forward and participate. He really made a very good impression.
Then we have Ejuke who is more of a winger, doing very well and can play on both sides. Now we have five wingers – we already have Kalu, Chukwueze, Musa, Simon, and Ejuke now. You can imagine it is not easy now for me to make a choice because they are all doing very well. So we have to watch what they are doing in training and at their clubs.
Another new player is Dessers. He is a striker who is moving a lot, he has good shooting too and is doing very well. So there will be competition between him and Onuachu for the starting place against Algeria.
You will be playing against Algeria for the fourth time. The Algerians have evolved from the team you trashed 3-1 in 2016 to the one that could not beat the Super Eagles in Constantine in 2017. Two years later, they beat us in the semi-finals of the AFCON and are now African champions. Do you in anyway envy their progression from 2016 till date and are you hoping the same story can be said about your team between now and 2022?
We know this Algerian team. They are unbeaten now in 18 games and we will like to stop them. We know it will not be easy. They’ve made a lot of progress since we beat them in Uyo. It’s not the same team, but they still have some of those players. Now they are number-one in Africa and they will be a very big test for us. The second game we played 1-1 draw with them in Constantine, but we lost it , fortunately, we had already qualified for the World Cup by then.
What do you consider before you put players on the standby?
We look at what they are doing at the club. We have to do the list very early – five weeks before – to cater for the visa issues and other protocols especially because of the covid-19. At this moment, most of the leagues are not playing, so we based our list on what was happening previously. But after we did the list, some leagues started.
So the standby list is done in case of injuries and other issues that may arise and we need to make quick replacement.
Some Nigerians feel you have preference for Nigerian players born in Europe. Is that true and will that not take away some aggression and physicality from the team?
We never watch the place where they are born. When we make our list, we only look at the quality of the players. It doesn’t matter where they were born, it matters only how well they can play. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any player from Nigerian [league] now because they didn’t play since March already, so it was not possible for them to come in.
And I don’t even know which one was born in Europe or which one was born in Nigeria. I see the players, they are proud to be here. The new players say ‘I want to play for my fatherland’. It’s wonderful when I here Akpoguma was born in Neustadt, close to my city, Mannheinm. His father is from Benin, I think. I met them, and he’s proud to play for Nigeria – but he played already for Germany.
He told me it would be wonderful if he could play in the World Cup against Germany! He’s hundred percent Nigerian, but of course, his heart is a little bit also with where he was born, I understand. But you cannot say because he was born abroad, he is not hundred percent Nigerian, this is not good.
I think the only thing which is counting is that they want to play for us, the motivation is here, it can be mixed, it can be only African, it can be more white or black, it doesn’t matter. We are together in the team, everybody is proud to be here. The discussion in Nigeria that I prefer players born in Europe is not good at all.
There is concern about the defensive midfield. What is your plan to have a solid midfield in the absence of Wilfred Ndidi and others?
The absence of our three defensive midfielders, we miss Ndidi and Aribo who are two of the best players in the last games, and also Etebo now. We have invited Onyeka from Midtyjlland, you will discover him in the game. We have invited also Samson Tijani who is on loan at Hartberg, a very good player, 18 years and doing very well in the training sessions. Then we have Mikel Agu coming back, playing all the games with Vitoria de Guimarães, he deserves to come back. We have also the possibility to play one of our central defenders, Awaziem or Ajayi in the number 6 position.
We have different possibilities. It will not be the same like Ndidi, Aribo or Etebo, but of course, this is the opportunity to test new organisations and complexities.
Why have you invited Tijani at this stage. What are his chances of playing knowing he was a young player previously with the Nigerian U-17 team?
We invited Tijani because he has transferred to a good club. Red Bull Salzburg has one of the best scouting team in the world. We observed him at the World Cup and he did well.
We have good players in his position and it will not be easy for a 17 or 18 year old to come in. Now we are in Austria and he is here in Austria – two hours away by car, so I said he will be in the list. It is an opportunity for him to show what he can do.
He has a lot to learn, but doing well in training. Physically, he has to improve. He is still young and can grow stronger. But already, he can read the game well and he has a bright future.
You’re known to be very conservative. Are we going to see all the invited players play in the two friendly games? Secondly, which do you prefer between the old and and the new jerseys?
The jerseys are very nice. I saw it for the first time, there are two new ones. I know that the former one was a big success. There was one of the two colours a lot of people believe that it brings us bad fortune at the time. So this one is a new style, but for me I’m not looking too much at the jersey, that’s for the fans.
I am watching who is in the jersey and how he is doing on the pitch and the training sessions. But it’s good to know all the time that our jerseys are beautiful.
To the other question, you know we are the only team at the last AFCON where all the 23 players could play – even the three goalkeepers because it was a long tournament.
Now we have only two games and it will not be easy to play 26 players – or make two different teams, which is not in our spirit because we have to find quickly the rhythm because we’ve not played for a long time.
Of course, there will be some changes because we can make six changes per game. In two weeks (in a tournament) we can see everybody but now, it’s not going to be easy. But I’ve been able to see all the players in the training sessions to make some decisions.
Having worked with the three previous goalkeepers and have seen the new ones now in camp, who do you consider is your number one goalkeeper?
We know who will start the game, but I can’t disclose that now. That will be just before the game after I’ve spoken with them. We decide between three goalkeepers because the fourth cannot play. It could be Maduka for his little experience he already has with us against Brazil, but not playing so much at the club. it could be Yakubu because he’s playing all the time at the club, but he never played with us; or it could be Alampasu who plays I think half of the games with his club even in the European competition but they are out already.
So you will see, and it could perhaps be a surprise for you but we know already what we are doing. Also now, we have two defender. For example, we can start with Akpoguma and Balogun because Ekong did not play so much at the club. We can also start with Akpoguma and Omeruo. We also have Awaziem – we have five central defenders. So the choice is not only about goalkeepers, but also defenders. At first, Akpoguma will watch and then he will come in.
We have worked in the few days towards the starting team and we will be ready and we will do very well.
Has anything really changed mentally or physically for the players during training because of the coronavirus pandemic which is still around? Also what did you do to keep in touch with your players during the pandemic?
So many things changed because in this period, lots of things have happened. First, there was lockdown for everybody. We were in touch with our players by phone, through video to try to train at home – fortunately, technology helped us very much.
We had video conferences with our staff, welcoming Joseph Yobo among our staff. Mentally, it was not easy for the players. It was very difficult – to be alone at home, some of them have families but not everybody. Some are very far away from home in Turkey or somewhere, so we have some problems with that.
Then the football started again, Germany started first. Fortunately, it is working but it’s not real football – we don’t have our fans or spectators. We had to do again the test before the match and after the match. Some of our players were positive – four players – I don’t tell you which ones that had it, but now they are okay. But it was a problem, they have a lot of questions, when the doctors say you’re positive and you see people losing their lives, so it was not easy for them, but also for the other ones.
Fortunately now, we can come and play together again, but in those long period, communication was important by phone. Then by the end of May, we could start to travel – I could go and see some of our players in Europe. No possibility to go to Nigeria because there were no planes. And we don’t have the money for private planes, so we had to adapt our work. And especially the players, they had to be very careful and try to have an environment of family, with good friends and other at the clubs. We had to contact their coaches that knew what was happening and the doctors for the players who were positive then
I hope that now – winter time, we might camp in Europe. We don’t know what will happen – everybody is hoping vaccine will be found very soon and everything would be okay. But I think we still have to handle the situation for some few months.
How much of these games are you taking into the qualifiers. If the players chosen to replace regulars like Ndidi, Etebo and Aribo do well, are you going to have selection problems?
I hope so. If I have selection problems, it means that everybody is fit and that’s what I want. I will want to have Ndidi, but unfortunately, he will not be ready by November. I think Aribo will be ready and that is some good news. I spoke with Etebo and we might possibly have him in November.
Osimhen is quarantined, that’s the rule of the country. At his area, he has to stay with Napoli and they could not even play against Juventus. But he will be here in November, we need him.
Your goalscorer now is becoming a very big player. You see the transfer he did with Napoli and the last four goals against Lesotho came from Osimhen – he scored two and give the passes for the other ones.
So I hope to have him back for the qualifier against Sierra Leone in Nigeria. He will be happy to come back to the country and we hope to have fans in the stadium. Then we go to Sierra Leone. We will be looking at 30 players for the qualifiers and then for the World Cup, 40 players. So I hope to have good selection problems.
Super Eagles will resume AFCON qualifiers against Benin, Sierra Leone, Lesotho. Is the team not missing out not having friendlies outside North African opponents, Algeria and Tunisia?
It’s a regret. We want to play team.from West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, but I heard they couldn’t come and we had to play against Algeria. It’s not my wish, it was not the wish of the staff to play twice against these two similar teams from North Africa. And we know these people, sometimes they could be aggressive, sometimes it can’t be positive aggressiveness. In our qualifiers, we don’t have any North African teams, so it’s not a good preparations for us. But it’s already good to play again, we are happy to be together and to see some new faces and especially to see again our old faces and then we have to do a good work to prepare. I hope Sierra Leone will be a different opposition, but we have to be ready.