2018 World Cup: Nigeria team preview (By Vincent Obi, PANA Editor)

Lagos, Nigeria (PANA) - The Super Eagles of Nigeria will be making their sixth World Cup appearance in Russia when they file out on 16 June against Croatia in a Group D match.

Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal are representing Africa at football's biggest festival for senior men's teams.

In Group D, Nigeria will meet Croatia, Iceland and two-time world champions Argentina.

Against Croatia on 16 June, the Super Eagles will be playing at the 32,212-seat Kaliningrad Stadium, the 2018 World Cup venue with the lowest capacity. It is located at the Oktyabrsky Island.

Five days later, Nigeria will face Iceland at the Volgograd Stadium, with capacity for 45,000 fans and their final Group D match will be against Argentina on June 26 at the 67,000-seat Saint Petersburg Stadium, a retractable roof stadium in the western portion of Krestovsky Island in Saint Petersburg.

Having played in bigger stadiums in previous World Cup tournaments, the Super Eagles will definitely not be intimidated either by crowd or stadium infrastructure.

Although all five African teams in Russia for the 14 June to 15 July tournament had failed to impress in previous events, Nigeria turns out to be the most successful and experienced side with appearances in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014 World Cup finals.

Tunisia and Morocco have been there four times each (Tunisia in 1978, 1998, 2002 and 2006) and (Morocco in 1970, 1986, 1994 and 1998).

While Egypt had been to the world cup twice (1934 and 1990), Senegal participated once in 2002. All five qualifiers are crack teams in their own rights.

On paper, one of the most entertaining nations at the World Cup will be Nigeria, who play with flair, emotion and heart, which can captivate fans around the world. This edition of the Super Eagles has some veterans to lead the team's young generation, and this combination can make the team go all the way to, at least, the knockout stage.

The team roll call is a combination of experience and youthfulness, with John Mikel Obi leading the pack. The former Chelsea midfielder is the captain and at 31 years of age, his top years are winding down. He's been playing in China but is still performing at a good level - good on the ball, not afraid to get dirty and will be key to Nigeria quickly going on the attack.

The full squad parades a galaxy of stars - Goalkeepers: Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), and Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United)

Defenders are Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Den Haag), Elderson Echiejile (Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa)

Midfielders: John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino)

In attack, Nigeria will parade Ahmed Musa (Leicester), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), and Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone)

The Nigerian player to watch is Victor Moses. The Chelsea midfielder is fast, works really hard and knows how to make an impact. He can get down the wing, cut inside and plays well with strikers to combine for one-twos. He's somebody who could really shine this summer and help
Nigeria get through.

In Nigeria's fifth and last pre-World Cup friendly against Czech Republic, Moses took charge of all the corner and free kicks, propelling the attack which failed to respond in the 1-0 loss on
Wednesday in Austria.

They are probably Africa's best team in Russia, but having to go up against Argentina, Iceland and Croatia, it's going to be tough.

However, playing Argentina last gives Nigeria the opportunity to clinch a spot in the knockout stage before even playing that game, but then they must get at least a draw against Croatia in the opener to have that chance.

Nigeria's best World Cup performances were at USA '94, France '98, and Brazil 2014, where they were eliminated in the round of 16.

In 1994, Nigeria placed 9th overall, 12th in France '98, and 16th in Brazil. Their worst outing was when South Korea and Japan co-hosted in 2002, with Nigeria ending their campaign as 27th out of 36 teams.

Russia 2018 could be another difficult project for the Super Eagles.

In the words of Nigeria's manager, Gernot Rohr, the 26 June match with Argentina at St Petersburg will be a difficult one.

He says he anticipates that the encounter will be a classification match, to determine who moves to the round of 16.

Rohr reportedly remarked that the match will determine who follows who. In essence, he is projecting that both Argentina and Nigeria will emerge from Group D and the last match will only determine the group leader and the runners-up, who will face a potentially difficult Round of 16 match with projected Group C leader, France, which eliminated Nigeria at that stage four years ago.

Rohr's dream is to be the Group leader as Nigeria did in 1994 in a group that also had Argentina.

He says of Argentina: “They know how we play, so we cannot surprise them like the last time,” referring to the 4-2 defeat Nigeria inflicted on Argentina last year -  a defeatist attitude that Nigerian fans will not want to see.

He acknowledges that this time it will be more difficult to beat the Sampaoli as they did in the friendly at Krasnodar Stadium, Russia.

However, going by the results from the team's five pre-World Cup friendlies, Nigerians could be in for a big disappointment.
Nigeria won only one of the five matches (1-0 against Poland on 23 March), lost 0-2 to Serbia on 27 March, drew 1-1 with DR Congo in Nigeria, plus the losses to England (1-2) and 0-1 to Czech Republic.

But in football, friendlies may not be the correct measure of a team's performance in real competitive matches.

Nigeria and Argentina have met 8 times. Nigeria won twice (4-1 on 1 June, 2011, and 4-2 on 14 November 2017), drew once and lost 5 times.

Nigeria have met Iceland only once (22 August 1981) and the Super Eagles lost by an embarrassing 3-0 in an international friendly and there is no known record of a previous meeting between Nigeria and Croatia.

Perhaps, Nigeria's performance in Russia will depend on how the defence will react under pressure.

With the experienced Lionel Messi of Argentina piling up the pressure, Nigeria's survival will depend mainly on the fitness and ability of defenders like Elderson Echiejile, Bryan Idowu, William Ekong, Leon Balogun and Kenneth Omeruo, to contest every ball.

In the words of Nigeria’s Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, "The Super Eagles best performance will come at the World Cup."

Apparently disturbed by the not-too-impressive pre-Russia 2018 outing by the Super Eagles, the Minister on Thursday pleaded with Nigerians not to be disappointed. He promised that the team's best will come during the World Cup proper.

Following the below-par performance of the Super Eagles, many football fans have questioned the commitment of the team to the herculean task of defending the country’s colours in Russia.

“I appreciate the concerns of Nigerians that the last two matches seem not to meet the test of our passion, but I think the matches were played with a lot of strategic plans.

“The ultimate performance is at the world cup and if in the course of playing friendlies we incapacitate our great potentials then the essence of going to the world cup is defeated.

“So, I think our team played the friendly with a lot of caution.’’

Dalung said that in spite of the doubts being expressed by the teeming football fans in the country, the team will likely spring surprises at the 14 June-15 July tournament.
-0- PANA VAO/MA 8June2018

08 june 2018 10:38:09

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