KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY: The value of World Cup warm-up friendlies has always been questionable, as England’s 2-1 victory over fellow finalists Nigeria here proved.
Manager Gareth Southgate had cautioned in advance that his England line-up should not be considered the starting team against Tunisia at the imminent finals in Russia. This may be good news. On the other hand, only a few players are likely to be changed which may be bad news.
England dominated the first half against a Nigerian team who appeared to be playing at around 40pc of their potential. Southgate was disappointed that England were rewarded only with two goals from Gary Cahill and Harry Kane.
Nigeria made four substitutions half-time, changed their tactical shape, upset England by raising the tempo and pulled one goal back almost immediately through Alex Iwobi.
The game subsequently fell apart through a mixture of Nigeria’s improvement, England’s deterioration and the fragmenting effect of multiple substitutions by both managers – five in the case of England, six by Nigeria.
England wrap up their pre-finals programe with a friendly against Costa Rica at Leeds on Thursday and then Southgate can plot his campaign without the nuisance of being answerable to the media.
Southgate said: “I was pleased with the first half. We managed to overload midfield, there was a lot of unselfish play, we also won the ball back quickly and played from the back with good composure. That was as good a half as we have had.
“In the second half it took us some time to get to grips with their changes. We were a bit slow to react at the back and it was a good test for us because we had to manage a game which could have gone against us.
“We can improve in what we did – that five or six-minute spell could be enough to put you out – but we were more of a threat on goal than in any of our previous matches.”
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr had no doubt about the conclusions he should draw from both performance and defeat.
Rohr said: “The first lesson from this match is that we are not ready yet and have to work much more. We ‘missed’ our first half. Perhaps also the prep was not so good because we could not train here yesterday because of the rain and two days before that we arrived ony at three o’clock in the morning so the players were not ready – also England made a very good beginning and put pressure on us.
“This bad beginning was for us an opportunity to change our organisation to 5-3-2 and it was much better. We also changed four players and those who came in did very well. Unfortunately, in the World Cup we cannot change four players if we need to.”
Captain Jon Mikel Obi said: “In the second half we played the game we wanted and kept the ball much better. We have areas in which we can improve and it is important for this young team to see what it takes to pay at a World Cup.”
Nigeria’s squad attended a midweek reception in Abuja with President Muhammadu Buhari which ran over time and added to the travel problems but Obi did not attach any blame to logistical confusion.
He said: “I don’t think the thing with the president was a distraction. It’s always good to go and see the president and get his blessing it’s just that there are areas in which we, as a squad, need to improve.”
Nigeria’s squad will be cut over the weekend from 25 to the essential 23 for Russia.