In the last two years the experienced Gernot Rohr has brough stability to a Nigeria side that badly needed it. Since the 2010 World Cup, Nigeria have been managed by Augustine Eguavoen, Samson Siasia, the late Stephen Keshi, Daniel Amokachi, Shaibu Amodu and Sunday Oliseh.
Since taking over, Rohr has helped to cultivate a youthful, exciting new generation of Nigerian talent, with young stars like Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho now mainstays in the starting XI.
Gone are the days of Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu and Joseph Yobo, but having failed to qualify for the last two Africa Cup of Nations since winning it in 2013, fans of the Super Eagles now have legitimate reasons to be optimistic going into Russia this summer.
Nigeria have been drawn in the most interesting group, alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland. Facing Argentina must have felt inevitable, having happened in five of their six World Cup finals appearances.
I think if we felt in any way that there was very apparent racism, which everyone would be uncomfortable with. If anyone said: ‘We’re not going to play,’ then the team would make a unanimous decision. – William Troost-Ekong
A nasty underlying storyline going into this World Cup has been the potential of racial abuse being directed at players from the stands, and William Troost-Ekong told the Guardian that they would not be afraid to take a stance.
Route to Russia
Entering the process in the second round of qualifying, Nigeria overcame Swaziland 2-0 whilst still managed by Super Eagles legend Sunday Oliseh, with goals from Moses Simon and Efe Ambrose comfortably putting them into the group stage.
They were drawn in what initially looked like a tough group alongside Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia, but winning their home games 3-1, 4-0 and 1-0 respectively built a solid platform to win the group.
Victor Moses played a key role, scoring a brace against Algeria, and in the 4-0 dismantling of Cameroon in Uyo, on the way to finishing a comfortable eight points clear at the top.
A big talking point has been the goalkeeper situation. After drawing level with record appearance holder Joseph Yobo on 101 caps, legendary keeper Vincent Enyeama retired from international duty.
After losing Carl Ikeme to serious illness, Enyeama offered to come back, but Rohr has opted not to recall him, with Enyeama having played all season for Lille’s B team.
Fans are not happy with the prospect of error-prone Daniel Akpeyi being selected, and it looks like Rohr will opt for 19-year-old Francis Uzoho, who made his debut for Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga this season.
Chelsea’s Ola Aina looks set to be selected at right back, but at left back the manager will have a big decision to make as to whether to go for Brian Idowu, or Elderson Echiejile, one of his most experienced players.
John Obi Mikel is likely to only be a substitute, with Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi the preferred duo, offering strength and skill in the middle of the field.
The attacking trident behind Odion Ighalo is likely to consist of Victor Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi. Moses Simon is unlucky to miss out on the squad with a thigh injury, but Ahmed Musa will provide a threat from the bench.
Nigeria have a number of exciting, dynamic attacking players like Iheanacho, Moses and Iwobi, but winning the midfield battle against the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic when they go head-to-head with Croatia in Kaliningrad on June 16 will be pivotal to their chances of progressing, and Wilfred Ndidi will have a big part to play.
A wonderful blend of strength and skill, Leicester’s 21-year-old midfielder could have a real impact this summer, with an opportunity to announce his talents to the world.
Wilfred Ndidi’s Premier League season:
- 138 tackles
- 95 clearances
- 50 interceptions
Ndidi developed at Genk, the same club that brought through Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Benteke, attaining an excellent football education.
Ndidi suffered the ignominy of being the Premier League player in 2017/18 to attempt the most shots without scoring, but that won’t stop him having a go at the World Cup, and perhaps his luck may change.
Nigeria face key matches against Croatia and Iceland before clashing with familiar foes Argentina on matchday three.
Nigeria will hope for four points at the very least from their first two games.Croatia possess some outstanding individual talent in Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic, but Nigeria will, with good reason, believe that they are beatable.
Euro 2016 surprise packages Iceland mustn’t be underestimated by the Super Eagles, but Heimir Hallgrimsson’s workmanlike side may not be able to handle Nigeria’s vibrant football.
Ahmed Musa’s brace couldn’t prevent Argentina triumphing 3-2 when the two sides met in one of the most exciting matches of the 2014 World Cup.
They also met in November last year, with Nigeria beating an admittedly Messi-less Argentina 4-2 in Krasnodar, a game in which Rohr opted for three at the back, which could happen again at the tournament.
Despite not being convincing in qualifying, a Messi-inspired Argentina will still most likely win this group.
Nigeria definitely have the ability to beat Iceland and Croatia, and if they do, their showdown with Argentina on June 26th in Saint Petersburg could be an amazing contest in trying to seal top spot, one in which however Argentina will likely come out on top in.
A runner-up spot would likely seal another Round of 16 clash with France, who controversially beat them at the same stage in 2014, and will do so again this time around.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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