By Kayode Ogundare, who just returned from Moscow:
World Cup GROUP D: HOW NIGERIA WILL FARE AGAINST WORLD CUP FOES – A PERSONAL OPINION
In the light of what transpired this week as per FIFA sanction and deduction of points from Nigeria’s total haul in World Cup qualifying Group B, this exercise would have been a futility had the points deducted been enough to knock us out of the 2018 World Cup.
Fortuitously, crass negligence on the part of some people who’re paid to know better was not allowed to truncate the joy of soccer-loving Nigerians who are already dreaming of being part of the World Cup party in Russia next year.
Now that this has been put behind us, we can now take a critical look at World Cup Group D where the Super Eagles have been pitted against two-time world champions Argentina, European rising stars Croatia and giant-killing debutants Iceland.
I have decided to critically analyse the three teams and Nigeria, weighing them in terms of talent, pedigree, preparations and the x-factor, that unknown variable that’s usually the difference between success and failure.
Street wisdom would suggest Argentina are the team to beat in this group and this is without merit.
In Lionel Messi, the Albiceleste have arguably one of the best players of ayl time. On his day, Messi alone is capable of ruining a whole battalion of players and has been known to be the difference-maker on many occasions, the last qualifying game against Peru when he scored an hat-trick to drag Argentina over the line to Russia.
Apart from Messi, there are Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Romero, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and a host of other top talents.
Now, that team would be favoured to top any group and, moreso, Argentina have defeated Nigeria on all four previous occasions that both teams have me at the World Cup.
However last month’s 4-2 friendly win by the Super Eagles have given many Nigerians hope of an upset over the Argentines.
But I will advise caution against unrealistic expectations so that we don’t put undue pressure on the Eagles.
The strength of the Argentina team is in the individual quality of their star players. Depending on the formation coach Cesar Sampaoli chooses to employ, there are players suitable to play.
Conversely, the main weakness of the team is that they’ve not been able to forge the team into an effective fighting unit thus they tend to struggle in games.
I expect the Argentines to come out shooting from the hips because they have a point to prove against Nigeria. I personally asked Sampaoli at the World Cup draws in Russia if there was added pressure on his team to play Nigeria?
His mouth twitched in determination as he replied that he would be ready fr the Eagles on the 26th of June.
And seriously, I hope Nigeria will not go into the game needing anything. We should wrap up qualification in the first two games because I don’t see us getting anything from the Argentina game. I hope I’m proved wrong though.
Rising European team will be the Super Eagles first opponent on June 16 and it would be a spectacle to see how the two teams shape up against each other.
Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is the crown of this team but there’s a supporting cast of Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and others will ensure that the Croatians are a difficult nut to crack for any team in the group.
They’re a difficult team to beat so they’ll fancy their chances especially against Nigeria and Iceland because they regard themselves as only second in pedigree to Argentina.
It is the opening group game and luckily, coach Gernot Rohr understands the enormity of the task ahead of his team. The Super Eagles would start the game as underdogs and that could turn into a huge advantage for us if we seize the chances that are bound to come our way.
I’ve always said that the Super Eagles are one of the moat-attack minded teams in Africa and I don’t see Croatia stopping them from scoring.
However can we score enough to win the game?
It is their debut at the World Cup and I have a feeling they could replicate the feat of Croatia in France ’98 who went all the way to the semi-finals in their first appearance as an independent nation.
However, while that Croatian team was populated by accomplished star players like Savor Suker etal, this Icelandic team is not so blessed.
What they have going for them is their unity of purpose and ability to bend backwards to achieve relative success even with such a talent-challenged bunch of players.
Croatia may be our first game and therefore very important but I think the game against Iceland is our most crucial. They’re an unknown quantity and therefore very dangerous. The fact that they would have played and lost their first game against Argentina and face the prospect of elimination when they meet Nigeria in their second game with make them doubly dangerous.
I foresee the Iceland game being the toughest game Nigeria will play in the group stage in Russia 2018 and our prospect of advancement from the group will depend on the outcome of that game.
Finally, I think Nigeria will scrape through to the next round of the competition but it won’t be smooth sailing as most of our compatriots believe. We may come through in first or second place from the group but my second choice from the group could end up being Croatia and not Argentina. That’s my take!
This ends my experience from the FIFA World Cup Draws and the countdown to the competition proper in June 2018.