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World Cup: How Nigeria can proceed in the tournament

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Against Argentina, resolve is critical

Nigeria’s Super Eagles has played two matches in the World Cup tournament going on in Russia at the moment. Sports enthusiast and writer, Ola Opesan has followed the progress of the team this far and shares a perspective that Coach Gernot Rohr needs to make ‘The Difference.’

 

Nigeria versus Iceland turned out to be another match where the Eagles managed to attain lift off and sustain flight mainly in the second half.

In the first half Nigeria had good possession with little penetration, while Iceland produced dangerous crosses into the box from set pieces and wide positions. Twice in the first half it took deft flick-ons from Balogun to ensure the ball evaded both the queuing Norsemen and his own net.

Both teams had moments of promise in the first half, though only Iceland managed goalward shots. Still, any lull in the match was soon punctuated with syncopated thunderclaps from the Icelandic supporters. Was it Odin or Thor being summoned? Was it Sango? Who knows?

Well, lightning did strike. It first came as a streaking drive from Etebo, within the opening seconds of the second half. In the move, Etebo, playing another starring role, manifested the manager’s half time team-talk and signalled Nigeria’s intent with a driving run and shot. The keeper was not troubled by the shot, but for the first time in a long time, Nigeria had shown pace in attack.

Indeed, a few minutes later from a long Iceland throw-in to the box of Nigeria, the resultant clearing header was rapidly worked out to Moses on the right. The cross from Moses was flicked up by the outstretched leg of Musa in full flight and swept in with the same right foot from close range.

Nigeria did not relent, the Eagles went in search of the cushion of a second goal. The closest of the opportunities was again created by Nigeria’s number 7, whose looping shot from just outside the box swerved to send the keeper too far to his left, only to look on anxiously as the ball crashed against the bar.

Yet, it was not one way traffic. Iceland fought back by using the full width of the pitch; but were thwarted by Omeruo and Balogun winning vital headers in the box. The ding dong nature of the match had the rhythm of a keenly contested basketball game, until Nigeria’s passing game, led by its Captain and Etebo, started to shade possession in favour of Nigeria.

Then lightning struck twice. It came from a hopeful punt along Nigeria’s left side, which turned into a penetrating pass to leave Ahmed Musa one on one with Iceland’s last defender. It was a simple foot race, and determination allied to pure pace won the day. Ahmed’s speed not only took him past the defender, it took him beyond the defender’s groping hands and around the on rushing keeper with time enough to steady himself and slot past two hapless defenders on the line. Cue delirious celebrations.

Similar to Nigeria versus Croatia, it was an evenly balanced contest won by the team able to take its chances. Such are the fine margins of modern day football. Iceland’s biggest chance arrived soon after Nigeria’s second goal when Nigeria let its professional mask slip. An Iceland attacker pressed a ball in Nigeria’s box. The ball, which could have been cleared to safety, was passed tentatively within the box. Also, Nigeria’s first substitute of the match seemed favourite to clear the ball, only to end up clearing the Iceland attacker who nipped in between him and the ball.

Before it was confirmed that Nigeria had conceded two penalties in its opening two World Cup matches, there was again VAR (Video Assistant Referee) drama. The penalty taker for Iceland opted for the short run up, before ostensibly changing his mind as the keeper moved right. The result: he blazed over the left stanchion of Nigeria’s goal.

Just as the condemnation from some quarters was almost absolute after the first match of the Eagles, so must commentators not go overboard following this famous win. Nigeria still needs to ameliorate some defensive frailties. For example, the team’s marking on corners or defensive set pieces originating from the flanks, seem to start off as man to man marking, and morph to zonal marking at the crucial point of the ball arriving in the box. No team can continue to allow attackers head the ball unchallenged in their penalty box and hope to reach the latter stages of the tournament.

Finally, Nigeria was yet again able to deride its FIFA ranking, because of its familiarity of playing physical and tenacious teams on the African continent. For most of the match, Iceland posed a similar threat akin to a Cameroon or Burkina Faso team without pace. So, should the Eagles wish to prolong their stay in the 2018 Mondial, they will need to become airborne soon after the first blast of the whistle and sustain altitude to soar over Argentine storms.

 

 

Super Eagles player, Oghenekaro Etebo

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