Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Super Eagles are ready for take-off

No one is tipping Nigeria, but confidence and a favourable draw could carry them far in Brazil

Nigeria Super Eagles
Of the less-fancied teams travelling to the World Cup Finals next month, it might be worth keeping an eye on Nigeria.

The Super Eagles warm up next week for their Brazilian adventure with a friendly against Scotland at Fulham's Craven Cottage.

Stephen Keshi's team head to the World Cup Finals unbeaten in qualifiers and ranked 44th in the world, without heavy expectation on their shoulders. The African champions are rated by William Hill at only 250/1 to lift the trophy, 24th out of the 32 finalists.

In reality, a run to the quarter-finals would be considered an achievement as Nigeria have never gone beyond the second round before and no African side has gone further than the last eight – Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

And yet there are reasons for cautious optimism. Not only do Nigeria arrive confident after winning the African Cup of Nations last year for the first time since 1994, but they also find themselves in the easier half of the draw, avoiding Brazil, Spain, Colombia, Uruguay, England, Italy and the Netherlands until the semi-finals.

It will be big ask to top a group containing Argentina, but with Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina the other first-round opponents, Nigeria will feel they have a real chance of finishing in the top two positions in Group F.

Round of 16 opponents would then come from the less than terrifying Group E of Switzerland, France, Ecuador and Honduras, which should give Nigeria genuine hope of reaching the last eight for the first time in their history.

They will be mindful of course of their two second-round odysseys which ended with conflicting fortunes: In 1994 they were two minutes from eliminating Roberto Baggio's Italy, who ended up losing the final on penalties, but went down 2-1, and at France '98 they collapsed surprisingly easily 4-1 to Denmark.

Keshi is cut from the traditional disciplinarian cloth of Nigerian head coaches, but remains popular with his players after the Nations Cup win and loved domestically for his blooding of Nigeria- based players: Despite Nigerian footballers being scattered to the four winds, five of the preliminary squad for Brazil play their trade at home and over 30 have been called up over the past year.

'Big Boss' Keshi  & his assistant Daniel Amokachi are also fondly remembered as skipper and striker for Nigeria at USA '94, their country's historic first World Cup Finals appearance.

Softly-spoken goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama speaks highly of his manager. "He is a great guy," he told FIFA.com, "a man-manager who tries to build a team on unity." Chelsea’s Jon-Obi Mikel added, "He always wants you to work 110% every day in training and in games…and I think every player is enjoying the challenge."

Mikel is the best known Nigerian player worldwide after eight successful seasons with Chelsea, but has yet to feature in a World Cup Finals. The pivot of the side's attack-minded 4-4-1-1 formation, Mikel's job is to orchestrate the attacks using his pacy wingmen Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa.

Behind Mikel just to his right, Lazio’s young anchorman Ogenyi Oyazi has impressed recently and additional speed can be injected into the attack from Brescia’s Nnamdi Oduamadi and Heerenveen's Uche Nwofor. Expect vertical play from Nigeria instead of possession football or a slow build-up.

Kesha has to choose between Chievo's Victor Obinna or Fenerbahce's Emanuel Emanike as the main marksman. Another option could be Stoke’s Peter Odemwingie or Newcastle veteran Shola Ameobi, and the team can adjust to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3  when required to accommodate more than one striker.

At the back is where Nigeria will sink or swim. It is hard to glean much from their African qualifiers against Malawi, Kenya, Namibia and Ethiopia, so the friendly clashes with Scotland and after that Greece and the USA before flying to Brazil will be illuminating. 

When Nigeria last met decent overseas opposition, competitively in last summer's Confederations Cup, they lost to Spain and Uruguay.

The expected centre-back pairing of Middlesbrough's Kenneth Omeruo and Caykur Rizespor's Godfrey Oboabona have a combined age of only 44, though Keshi may be tempted to field 24 year-old Azubuike Egwuekwe, who plies his trade in Nigeria with Warri Wolves and has 31 caps.

Keshi's team will play on the front foot in Brazil and should entertain the neutrals with fast and attacking football. If there are question marks they surround their untested defence, although Keshi has worked hard to get his back four working as a solid unit.

Team spirit, so often an African bugbear, will not be a problem this time around.

"We all go out there and help each other and play for each other and support each other. We are all in it together," confirmed Mikel.

In a nation in the news for ethnic and religious strife and boasting 521 different tongues, the common language of football and the Super Eagles at the World Cup will bring 170 million people in Africa's most populous country together for a month.

And unity is the key.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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