Nigeria – Group Stage Review

Premiership

This editorial evaluates Nigeria’s progress to date.

The Story So Far: Super Eagles fans approached the World Cup with great optimism. The occasional dreamer (including John Obi Mikel and Vincent Enyeama) backed the side to reach the last four, or even win the whole tournament, but a more realistic expectation was that Nigeria would escape the group and maybe … just maybe … become Africa’s fourth-ever representatives in the quarter-finals.

In my Official African World Cup Predictions with Kick Off, I foresaw a Last 16 berth for the Super Eagles; my hopes were tempered by the underwhelming preparations ahead of the tournament.

With France on the horizon, it remains to be seen whether Nigeria will, as predicted, bow out in the second round, or whether they can join Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon as African sides to have made the quarter-finals.

With regards to their group stage showing, Nigeria were probably sub-standard against Iran, were fortunate with the referee’s decisions and the quality of Enyeama against Bosnia, and impressed against Argentina, even in defeat.

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Hit of the Group Stage: Vincent Enyeama

The LOSC Lille stopper kept clean sheets against Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and by the time Lionel Messi beat him in the third game, his was the only defence in the tournament yet to have conceded a goal.

It’s a remarkable record and the keeper deserves great credit both for his organising of a patched-up backline and for his own individual genius against Bosnia.

Enyeama’s late stop against Edin Dzeko in the dying minutes of the second match both eliminated the Eastern Europeans and all but pushed the Super Eagles into the Last 16.

While he was beaten three times in the final group match, he still managed to make a flurry of outstanding saves, particularly to deny Lionel Messi and Angel di Maria.

With Enyeama’s magnificence between the sticks, Nigeria fans will believe that anything is possible.

Breakout Star: From the point of view of an outsider, it’s likely that Kenneth Omeruo, with his composed, mature defensive displays, has been a ‘breakout’ performer. 

Omeruo, who is only 20, defends with the poise of a much older man and his consistent ability to marshal superstar strikers continues to astound.

Super Eagles fans, however, will not be surprised by Omeruo’s excellent showings — those who have watched Nigeria over the last 18 months have come to expect nothing less from the classy defender.

For those familiar with the team’s recent progress, the emergence of Michael Babatunde has been a delight.

Little was expected of the midfielder and Keshi was widely derided for his inclusion, yet the FC Volyn man has been a revelation. He has added balance and energy to the midfield from a central role.

The search for the ‘Third Man’ had, finally, come to some kind of conclusion, only for Babatunde to break a wrist against Argentina.

Perversely, the 21-year-old will be missed against France.

Biggest Disappointment: John Obi Mikel

Chelsea pair Mikel and Victor Moses have both been disappointing, but the former probably takes the headlines here.

Much has been expected of the central midfielder, but again he flatters to deceive. 

His performances haven’t been a shade on the composed, inventive displays he delivered up at the Confederations Cup last summer, and, remarkably, considering his standing, there have been calls for Mikel to be dropped.

He was criticised for his lethargy and apparent lack of interest against Argentina, and struggled to prise open the resolute Iran defence in the opener.

He may wear the Number 10 shirt, but Mikel is yet to prove that he can be the playmaker Nigerians crave this summer.

Best Moment: There have been a few excellent moments for Super Eagles fans to savour. 

Emmanuel Emenike’s bullying of the hapless Emir Spahic of Bosnia, particularly in the build-up to the West Africans’ opener, was a joy to behold.

The greatest, moment, however, surely has to be Ahmed Musa’s opening goal against Argentina. Not only did it immediately allow the side to get over the potentially devastating early Messi goal, it was also confirmation of a prodigious young player’s talent.

Musa has often frustrated in the green of Nigeria, with his poor decision-making and his wayward finishing. Against Argentina, however, particularly with that sumptuous opening goal, he was outstanding.

It was the performance Nigeria fans had been waiting (and hoping) for.

Worst Moment: The impotency in attack against Iran, and Nigeria’s lack of innovation and inspiration was particularly hard to bear. 

While things have unravelled for Victor Moses since that opening game, Keshi’s decision to remove the Chelsea forward —a lively presence in the pre-tournament friendlies — and bring on Shola Ameobi, a forward who seemingly offered neither goals nor movement, was bewildering.

The Big Boss has won his critics round subsequently, but as that second 45 minutes drifted away from the Super Eagles, the knives were well and truly out.

Where do they go from here? Stephen Keshi deserves great credit for masterminding both Nigeria’s first World Cup victory since 1998 and their first appearance in the knockout stages for 16 years. 

It’s been a long and unhappy period of absence for the continental powerhouse, and the Big Boss has done well to return the Super Eagles to the final 16 with a fairly limited squad.

In France, Nigeria face a foe who have cruised through the group stage and, if the words of Bacary Sagna are anything to go by, are aiming for the title.

The improving showings of the Super Eagles’ backline and the class of Enyeama give encouragement that Nigeria could frustrate France, invite them on, before hitting them with their varied counter-attacking weapons.

If Keshi can carry the Super Eagles through to the quarter-finals, it would be an achievement to equal and almost certainly surpass, the African championship won in early 2013.

By Ed Dove
Twitter: @Eddydove

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