16:00 BST, Friday 22nd June, Volgograd Arena, (Volgograd), BBC
Iceland, unexpected darlings of Euro 2016, appear ready to play the same role at their first World Cup.
Representing the smallest nation ever to appear in a World Cup, Iceland drew 1-1 with Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Saturday in Moscow.
‘Keeper Hannes Halldorsson’s perfectly guessed stop of Messi’s penalty in the 64th minute was the highlight of the match and perhaps the greatest moment in the Icelandic nation’s history.
Now, Iceland shift their focus to Nigeria, who did little right in a listless 2-0 loss to Croatia on Saturday at Kaliningrad. Based on both side’s previous performances, Strákarnir okkar might be poised to take the next step – their first World Cup victory.
Nigeria, meanwhile, must improve their futile attack and young defence that was exploited on set-pieces. The only other meeting between these teams came in 1981, a friendly that went 3-0 to Iceland.
Last Time Out
Croatia 2-0 Nigeria
Poor defence on a pair of Croatia corners ultimately undid Nigeria in their World Cup opener.
Luka Modric’s corner was headed by two teammates in the 32nd minute, then deflected off Nigeria’s Oghenekaro Etebo for the first goal. In the 71st minute, Modric again was involved as he converted a penalty after William Troost-Ekong carelessly took Mario Mandzukic down in the box off another Croatia corner.
Manager Gernot Rohr took the blame for those set-piece struggles, hinting he did not prepare his youthful backline enough.
Read more on Nigeria’s tactical wrongdoings against Croatia HERE.
The Super Eagles did little offensively, managing two shots on target, but that could have been more the result of Rohr’s poorly positioned lineup with Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi on the wing and John Obi Mikel higher in the midfield.
Nigeria have now failed to win their last four World Cup openers.
Argentina 1-1 Iceland
The physical play that Iceland displayed in tying Portugal and beating England en route to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 was back against Argentina.
They harassed Messi often, but allowed Sergio Aguero to score his first World Cup goal in the 19th minute.
Four minutes later, however, the Iceland faithful in the stadium, and back home, erupted when Alfred Finnbogason pounced on Willy Caballero’s rebound to level the match with their first World Cup goal.
How much of Iceland’s draw was down to their greatness? Read more HERE.
Though Argentina held 72 percent of the possession, not surprising to manager Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland stuck with their plan and did exactly what they wanted they to do: collectively defend the Argentine attack, especially after Messi’s failed attempt from the spot.
Playing on his birthday, lone striker Odion Ighalo was isolated up front and managed just one shot on target. Ighalo, who was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho, hasn’t scored for the national team since September 2017.
Rohr, apparently, has finally seen enough of Ighalo, who could be headed to the bench as Iheanacho and fellow Saturday sub Ahmed Musa will play up front with Iwobi and Victor Moses on the outside.
Rohr considers the Croatia loss a learning experience for his defence, and expects them to rise to the occasion in this contest.
When Iceland moved forward against Argentina, they looked dangerous. They should be more apt to do that against Nigeria whilst looking to further exploit a backline that was disorganised versus Croatia.
Johann Berg Gudmundsson left just after the hour mark to an injury so his fitness level for Friday may be tested.
Key Battle: Alfred Finnbogason (Iceland) vs Leon Balogun (Nigeria)
Halldorsson might have been the Man of the Match against Argentina, but Alfred Finnbogason is feeling it with three goals in as many matches.
His historic goal against Messi and friends solidified his hero status back home, but for Iceland, it was a sign that their striker is in top form and ready to have an impact in Russia. He also did the little things, demonstrated by winning four aerial duels and making two key passes.
The Augsburg man could have an even bigger impact as Iceland may press forward more on Friday than they did against Argentina, even though Nigeria are expected to offer a more attack-minded starting XI.
At age 29, Balogun is the elder of Nigeria’s backline that started against the Croatia and could be intact for this matchup despite their issues Saturday.
Though injury left his availability for the opener in doubt, Balogun started and delivered a serviceable effort by winning four balls in the air and blocking two shots.
His presence in central defence will be just as important against Iceland, especially on set-pieces – as the Super Eagles look to improve their play in the box – and in terms of looking after the more reckless William Troost-Ekong.
A matter of maturity
Even if Rohr’s lineup changes are more appealing to the attack, the Nigerians still have to show they want to be in Russia to compete and not show off their nifty kits and travelling white suits and hats.
The youth factor – average age of 25.9 – should not be an excuse.
They’ve now had the taste of a World Cup match in 2018, the nerves should be settled and the focus refined. Rohr can get as tactical as he wants, but Nigeria must show more passion and urgency – the latter which was severely lacking against Croatia – in this match.
If not, their Word Cup stay will be brief.
Keep doing what they do
Should we really be surprised with anything the Icelandic warriors do?
They’ve proven in the European Championships and through qualifying for this tournament they are capable of success. The World Cup is just another opportunity and the odds against them don’t really matter.
Drawing with Argentina just solidified Iceland’s past accomplishments and their place as a knockout stage contender. Their discipline and professional approach to the game is impeccable. It’s a recipe for success that should not be tampered with.
Prediction: Nigeria 1-2 Iceland
After making history by just showing up to their first World Cup match, Iceland appear ready to continue their progress.
Their relentless defence and physicality might be too much for the Nigerians to handle when it’s done. Iceland were content in sitting back for most of the second half to earn the point against Argentina, but sticking to the plan is why they’ve become a credible opponent.
Nigeria have talent, but there’s plenty to improve upon from the opener and the challenge to earn a point won’t be easy, especially if the focus wanes and the composure lacks.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 6 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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