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Gernot Rohr must overcome more than Benin in Nigeria Super Eagles' Afcon quest

Gernot Rohr must feel like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the omens do not bode well.

In 2014, when Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, similar dark clouds hovered over the then Super Eagles coach, the late Stephen Keshi.

With political in-fighting at the highest levels of Nigerian football, Keshi also had to deal with a Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) that was determined to get him out at all costs. Nigeria lost their opening game of the qualifiers, at home to Congo, and ultimately failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.

The current political situation in Nigerian football is not as toxic as it was then, but Rohr is in as much of a war for personal survival as was Keshi.

Nigeria's coach has two games to negotiate as qualifiers for the 2021 Africa Cup on Nations get underway this week, starting with Benin.

But he is fighting battles beyond the pitch.

Since leading the Super Eagles to bronze medal at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt this past summer, the German has found himself engaged in something of a cold war with his employers, the NFF.

First, there was the issue of his wages. The coach was owed a backlog of salaries going back three months. He was also owed allowances, including his bonuses from the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

NFF officials were unhappy with what they considered the German's abrasive attitude, one example of which cost the federation a fine at the recent FIFA Under-20 World Cup "He loitered into the technical area without credentials and when he was questioned by FIFA protocol officials, proceeded to give them attitude. We were fined heavily for his misconduct," an official told ESPN.

The frosty relationship led to speculation that the coach's contract, which expires in June 2020, would not be renewed

This, in addition to the pockets of discontent among sections of Nigeria fans and media, who think the coach has given everything he can and has nothing more to add to Nigerian football; indeed there are growing calls for his sacking, including from two former internationals. 

Rohr, for his part, has done little to help his case.

Unhappy about having to play two games with next to no turnaround time, the coach complained directly to CAF, rather than through the NFF.

The move further miffed the federation

"He knows the proper way to channel his complaints, but he chose to go over the NFF," an official told ESPN.

NFF president Amaju Pinnick tried last week to melt some of the ice, suggesting during a TV interview that Rohr's contract would be renewed but with certain conditions, including having the coach look at giving players in the domestic league more opportunities.

That idea was immediately shot down by the coach when asked if he had been consulted about it

"No he didn't speak about it at all," Rohr said at a media conference on Tuesday. "But I know that he has sometimes a different opinion, like me. It is football.

"But I never accepted to make a choice coming from the officials. My choice is the choice of sports arguments only, to take the best players.

"Unfortunately, we could not take more players from the local league because they did not play. So it was difficulty for them to be fit. And also the CHAN team unfortunately could not qualify. So this is perhaps a proof that they need competition. I am sure that we have good players here. You see one of them is coming now -- Ifeanyi [Anaemena] from Enyimba replacing Idowu, who could not come.

"I know that some people cannot be happy about my choice, but what I can tell you is that my choice is always honest."

Rohr's immediate choice, now, is to put these distractions behind him and pick a team good enough to defeat Benin.

Captain Ahmed Musa is back, as is starting centre-back Kenneth Omeruo, who faces competition from Semi Ajayi. The West Bromwich Albion man has started the past two games, and excelled, and will it be a hard call for Rohr to drop him.

Midfield would be where Rohr has some problems.

Oghenekaro Etebo is recovering from injury, and was named only in the standby list. Rohr said at Tuesday's prematch press conference that Joe Aribo, who, like Ajayi, has been outstanding in the past two games, also may not feature having only arrived a day before the game.

Moses Simon also falls into that category, leaving the German with a limited pool to pick from -- at least for the first game - despite the return of Musa.

With starting goalkeeper Francis Uzoho injured and out for at least six months, Rohr also has to decide who among Daniel Akpeyi, Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Maduka Okoye will start in goal.

Problems, problems everywhere.

But starting this Afcon campaign with anything other than a win against Benin is not a scenario that can be countenanced.

Nigeria vs. Benin: Colin Udoh's Predicted Super Eagles Starting XI

Daniel Akpeyi; Chidozie Awaziem, Kenneth Omeruo, William Troost-Ekong, Jamilu Collins; Wilfred Ndidi, Semi Ajayi; Alex Iwobi; Ahmed Musa, Victor Osimhen, Kalu Uche.

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