If style had any influence on this summer’s tournament, Nigeria would already have been declared winners.
The Super Eagles’ striking home jersey has already clocked up in excess of three million pre-orders, and if the football is half as daring as the dazzling shirt, the watching supporters are in for a treat.
Being drawn alongside Argentina for the fifth time might have elicited a few groans in Abuja but the Nigerians’ shock 4-2 victory against the Albiceleste in Krasnodar has them brimming with confidence.
The Nigerian Football Federation drew some criticism for a recent statement claiming that their side could make it all the way to the semi-finals; whilst that is certainly fanciful, the African heavyweights boast more than enough talent to make it into the knockout rounds.
For that to happen, however, Ogenyi Onazi needs to be at his best.
The 25-year-old is the hub of Nigeria’s midfield and arrives in Russia off the back of a frustrating season with Trabzonspor. A former Lazio man, Onazi struggled to break into the side for much of the campaign, making just 17 starts as his club surged to fifth place.
Onazi is much more a fixture for Gernot Rohr’s national side, having made his international debut at the 2013 Cup of Nations. He was ever-present in the Super Eagles’ unseemly exit four years ago, but his role in the team becomes even more pronounced this time around.
Mikel Jon Obi is not the force he was at Chelsea, whilst Wilfred Ndidi and Alex Iwobi make their first appearance at a World Cup. Onazi, having been there and done it, will be a crucial influence on a relatively inexperienced squad.
“We have to be realistic,” he suggested to World Soccer in advance of the tournament. That might be true, but for once the Super Eagles seem ready to take flight. Onazi will be key to that.
Onazi is the most dynamic member of Nigeria’s midfield, rushing from box to box and effecting incisive play wherever he goes.
His fulsome and energetic style means that he can be a nightmare in both phases of the play, as likely to charge past an opponent as he is to charge into one.
He is also a capable passer, whilst his all-action performances mean he is a regular deputy for the captain’s armband if Mikel is absent.
Onazi’s versatility might be a strength, but sometimes it feels like a weakness too. An adaptability for every midfield position means he has failed to impress consistently in a more defined role.
Against Croatia and Argentina in particular, he must curb his offensive instincts to offer an effective shield alongside Ndidi in a deeper position. Doing so will allow the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho and Iwobi to take greater risks in attack, as the Eagles seek to punish any defensive lapses from their more illustrious counterparts.
Nigeria certainly have the ability to progress into the knockout stages but only if Rohr can make the most of his talented squad.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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