On Saturday Nigeria’s Super Eagles will start their World Cup adventure by facing 1998 semi-finalists Croatia.
Can they scale the preliminaries? Or will they go the whole way?
We bring you an analysis by the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) of what to expect from the three-times African champions in Russia.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria will leave their Avita Resort camp in Bad Tatzmannsdorf, Austria, for Russia on Monday to begin their sixth assault on football’s greatest prize – The FIFA World Cup
They have played six friendly games since November last year with mixed results:
- Argentina (Won 4-2)
- Poland (Won 1-0)
- Serbia ( Lost 0-2)
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Drew 1-1)
- England (Lost 1-2)
- Czech Republic (Lost 0-1)
Despite the not-too-encouraging build up to the mundial, coach Gernot Rohr has that the underdog tag that has come as a result suits the three –time African champions nicely.
“We are okay with the garb of the underdog. But the defeats have done something for us – we have our heads firmly on our shoulders and we are focused.
“Together, we have reviewed the matches and learnt so many lessons. We will approach the World Cup matches differently,” said Rohr.
Nigeria’s first match of the finals is against Croatia on Saturday, with the Eagles logging a balanced record of having won their opening match at the World Cup on two occasions, drawn once and lost twice.
On the three occasions they have not lost their opening match (1994, 1998, 2014), the Eagles have progressed to the Round of 16.
An underwhelming recent record, being the lowest –ranked team in Group D and the lowest –ranked African team in the finals, plus a recent tag by FIFA as mere ‘perennial World Cup appearance –makers’ all tend to project the Eagles as a side waiting to be rolled over.
That would be the biggest mistake of the so –called big teams.
Nigeria’s senior team has the knack for coming to the party when least expected. Lumped in a fiery assembly with Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia in the African qualifying race, the Eagles made short work of the pool, emerging run –away winners with a match to spare, and with the distinction of hammering African champions Cameroon 4-0 on a spectacular evening in Uyo.
Echoes from the past
In 1994, the Eagles, after winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, failed to excite in friendly games leading to the World Cup.
But as debutants, they thrashed Bulgaria 3-0 on a sunny afternoon inside the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Four years later, they lost 1-5 to Netherlands in their last friendly game before heading to France, only to shock World Cup favourites Spain 3-2 in their opening game at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes.
Rohr has only lost one competitive game since taking over the Super Eagles two years ago, and the former German international defender says his wards know how to get their spring back when the whistle goes for kick –off at the Kaliningrad Arena on Saturday.
“We will take it one match at a time. I love this group because we know how to rise to the occasion together. Nigeria will be ready for Croatia.”
For sure, the tactician has the pieces to craft a crack squad capable to surprising the bookmakers in Russia.
Young goal –tender Francis Uzoho has logged useful hours since making his debut against Argentina in Krasnodar in November last year, and deputies Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi are even more experienced.
The dependable ‘Oyibo Wall’ of Leon Balogun and William Ekong can trust either of Abdullahi Shehu and Bryan Idowu or Tyronne Ebuehi and Elderson Echiejile to cover the flanks well enough, and Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem are also available.
Skipper Mikel John Obi retains his steel and ball –holding ability in midfield, with Wilfred Ndidi having recovered from injury in good time and John Ogu showing versatility in recent games. Oghenekaro Etebo, Ogenyi Onazi and Joel Obi add to the options in that sector.
Speedster Ahmed Musa, Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi can combine to tear apart the opposition, and the world of football is still blissfully unaware of the ability of Italy –based Simeon Nwankwo.