Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr still searching for respect despite Nigeria's AFCON qualification

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For the third time on the bounce, Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr masterminded qualification for a major tournament with at least one game to spare; this time, the Super Eagles achieved their target with two games in hand but still the German is in the market for respect from Nigerian football fans, media, and pundits.

Nigeria legend Henry Nwosu, who helped the Super Eagles to their first Africa Cup of Nations title in 1980, grudgingly accepts that Rohr has done a good job but says there is only one way the coach can earn the respect of Nigerians.

"Rohr has done well but I will not see him as one of the best coaches in Africa just because he qualified Nigeria for AFCON," Nwosu said.

"Let him go on and win the Africa Cup of Nations. After winning the Nations Cup, that is when we can now rate him. The wish of every Nigerian is for Rohr to win the Nations Cup. I will want Nigeria to win the Africa Cup of Nations title and do well at the World Cup and even win it. That is the target for the coach in charge whether he is a Nigerian or not."

Nwosu's sentiment is shared by many across the Nigerian football spectrum, with the major criticism of the German being his in-game decision-making, supposed lack of tactical ability, and poor or ill-timed substitutions.

This criticism prompted Nigeria Football Federation president Amaju Pinnick to suggest, when handing the 67-year-old a new contract, that he would be sent for "refresher courses".

On the face of it, the criticisms would appear to be unjustified. In this most recent qualifying series, Rohr hit some really impressive numbers -- especially in comparison to previous years.

The Super Eagles finished the qualifying campaign as one of only four unbeaten sides, chalking up 14 points -- only Tunisia, with 16 points, did better -- and it is their best points tally in the final group phase of qualifying since the 2008 series, when Berti Vogts team' hit 15 points from five wins and one loss.

It is also the second consecutive major tournament qualifying series, after the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, in which Rohr's team has been unbeaten on the field.

Indeed his only defeat in a qualifying series came in the campaign to reach the 2019 African Cup of Nations, when the Super Eagles lost 2-0 at home to South Africa in Rohr's early days as Super Eagles coach; beset by injuries, Rohr started a young, inexperienced team against South Africa, and his naive bunch suffered a humiliating defeat.

The 67-year-old has since overseen 17 qualification games without a single loss.

From a goals standpoint, Rohr's team also stacks up creditably against his predecessors in the job, and his contemporaries around the continent. For the first time since group phase qualifying was introduced, Nigeria produced the qualifying top scorer in Odion Ighalo, and followed up this time with Victor Osimhen.

As if that was not enough, Nigeria also ranked among the scoring leaders, with their 14 goals this time equal second with Tunisia; only AFCON champions Algeria, with 19 goals, scored more. Nigeria also scored 14 in the 2019 qualifiers, second to Egypt with 16.

Accomplishments such as these, over three qualification series, should have been enough to earn a coach excited plaudits, especially with a team that has missed three of the past five Afcon tournaments.

But not for Rohr.

Some of the criticism may be over the top, but it is not entirely without basis -- starting from the Super Eagles' final group game of the 2018 World Cup when Argentina were there for the taking and the team bottled it.

Perhaps some of the critics would have been silenced if the Sierra Leone debacle had not happened last November, when the 4-4 draw after leading 4-0 demonstrated all sorts of shortcomings in the squad.

He continues to maintain that his team is a young team but few critics are willing to accept that any more, whether as a reason or excuse; many of his players have been playing for him since 2016 and, irrespective of age, should be considered "mature".

By August, Rohr will have spent five years on the job and all but become Nigeria's longest-serving coach. By the same stage, Clemens Westerhof had won silver, bronze and gold medals, and Stephen Keshi won the Afcon title ate the first time of asking less than two years after his appointment.

World Cup qualifying begins in two months' time, and the Afcon itself rolls around soon after. Nothing short of gold in Cameroon will be good enough for the critics, and Rohr will need to make some changes going forward.

To start with, he has to restore the Super Eagles' swashbuckling swagger; indeed, the lack of that flair might be the biggest reason why he does not get respect from his critics.

Nigeria have traditionally gone into games with an arrogant superiority about them, especially against small teams.

During qualifying in 1994, the Super Eagles played South Africa. When the teams lined up in the tunnel, Nigeria skipper Keshi looked at the Bafana Bafana players and asked "Are these the ball boys?". The South Africans were instantly psyched out.

That swagger appears to have gone from the team, amid Rohr's insistence on the team being "humble".

Rohr also has big decisions to make on the field, starting with selection. Osimhen may be the lead striker, but Paul Onuachu has shown he can be more that the support cast.

And then there is Kelechi Iheanacho, who presents a different kind of conundrum. Iheanacho has just been named Player of the Month for March in the Premier League, and Rohr will have to find a way to manage the situation with three forwards if the Leicester City player maintains his form.

That would mean a tactical tweak, going from his favoured 4-3-3 to playing with three at the back. Incidentally, the Super Eagles have produced some of their best performances under Rohr with three at the back -- namely the second half against England, the win over Iceland, the near-miss against Argentina, and the win over Brazil -- but the coach always reverts to form.

No matter what formation Rohr plays, he must ensure he manages his personnel optimally to win the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

And that personnel seems already set in tone, given that Rohr said, after the three-time African champions finished their qualification campaign for next year's tournament with a 3-0 victory against Lesotho, that he would not call up new players for the World Cup qualifiers.

"The World Cup qualifiers will start soon, and I think we will be able to do well and we should expect good football again on a good pitch," Rohr said.

"We can't try new players now. It is too late and it is getting more serious because it is World Cup qualifiers.

"The AFCONqualifiers is over and we need to get the same result like in the World Cup qualifiers. We need to continue doing our job."