With the euphoria of qualifying for the World Cup gone with November, 2017; attention promptly shifted to potential match-ups at the group stage of the mundial consequently pooled on December 1, 2017 at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia.
Safe to say, to avoid the anxiety that comes with the draws is to opt not to qualify at all. In every conceivable way, the former worry is more welcome than the prospect of losing out altogether.
The World Cup on Russian soil in 2018 presents a known challenge for the five African representatives given the recurring mental baggage – No African team has made it past the round of 8 despite having gone desperately close to breakthrough a couple of times.
Assessing the chances of the present crop of Africa’s flagbearers – Morocco; Egypt; Tunisia; Nigeria and Senegal – it may be difficult to conclude what teams would make it through or get eliminated at the first hurdles. However, on paper, the Pharaohs of Egypt seem to have the easiest of group stage pairings having drawn hosts Russia, Saudi-Arabia and Uruguay.
Whereas Morocco may not have it easy with resurgent Spain; European champions Portugal and unpredictable Iran, Nigeria have familiar foes Argentina; dark-horses Croatia and debutant Iceland to contend with in a tricky group.
For all of Egypt’s luck; Senegal’s fortune; Tunisia’s headache; Morocco’s hoodoo; and the opposition strengths in Nigeria’s group, not a few analysts and footballers have touted the Super Eagles of Nigeria as Africa’s best bet of breaking the quarter-final jinx citing the youthful vigour, directness, pace, power and doggedness evidenced in the squad as a perfect recipe for dark-horses.
Although the West African football powerhouse have never previously made it beyond the second round, neutrals and fans alike are tipping former Chelsea man and Africa’s most decorated captain presently playing – John Obi Mikel – to lead his nation, Nigeria to greater glory at Russia.
The grandest footballing showpiece has seen African players like El-Hadji Diouf of Senegal (Korea/Japan 2002) and Roger Milla of Cameroon (Italia 1990) attain the status of “greats” as well as the likes of Asamoah Gyan of Ghana (South Africa 2010) and Rashidi Yekini of Nigeria (USA 1994) achieving cult hero status with their driving impacts. Opinions are rife that with focus and discipline, there are reasons to believe that Tianjin TEDA’s no 10 John Obi Mikel may rewrite history two months from now as the “greatest” African to have graced the World Cup in the shirt of an African nation.
It is not an overstatement that in the past five years, much of the good that has happened to the national team of Nigeria began not just from the foot of Obi Mikel but also his heart. It is widely known that much of the expenditure of the Nigeria Olympic team at Rio 2016 was handled by the skipper, making little fuss about it while passing his commitment to the cause to the rest of the team; also sacrificing his Chelsea future for a chance to impress at the Olympics in the process.
Going further down the line, the unlikely Nations Cup triumph in 2013 under the leadership of the Late Stephen Keshi cannot also be dissociated from the stellar performances of the Pepsi Academy graduate.
Ever since, it has been commanding performances from the heart of midfield; assists upon assists and aids upon aids. If Nigeria will achieve something extra at the World Cup in July, 2018. Not only must they put the ball at the feet of Mikel to dictate the proceedings, he must also be generally accorded the respect he has come to earn as Nigeria’s finest since the turn of the century.
Nigeria begin their World Cup campaign against Croatia on Saturday, June 16 2018 at Kaliningrad and the destiny of the Super Eagles tournament rests solely on their approach to this match. Staying overly conservative and lethargic and allowing the likes of Luka Modric and Perisic to pull the strings will portray cowardice and lack of belief. Taking the initiative and remaining compact as well as expansive as seen in the second half of the friendly match against Argentina is the way to go.
It offers a better way to winning as Pep Guardiola’s teams have consistently showed. Of course, the odd goals may be conceded here and there; but with a bit of luck, the Super Eagles should put in more than they concede with their pacey strikers that can expose any defence.
Croatia are no Germany after all; neither are they Republic of Benin. They are simply Croatia who managed to make it to Russia via the play-offs despite having the Mandzukic, Rakitic, Kovacic, Pasalic, Halilovic, Olic, Lovren, Kramaric of this world. No disrespect.
Much of the talk surrounding the Nigeria – Iceland game has stemmed from the “minnows” dumping the three Lions of England out at the Euros in 2016. The small Icelandic nation have the potentials to cause the Super Eagles all sorts of problems truly because of the relatively low profile of some of their players and unsurprisingly should constitute the single biggest threat to Nigeria qualifying from the group. Remember, Iceland topped their qualifying group dispensing the likes of Turkey and finishing ahead of Croatia. Make no mistakes, Iceland would be no pushovers but with the right momentum and focus, the Super Eagles should do a job.
The only difference between Nigeria and Argentina in the final group game will be in the possession of mesmeric and diminutive Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward can literally turn any game on the head on his own. However, Nigerian fans can have some respite and make some boast of their own with the presence of Mikel – the African team version of a match winner. If Mikel can rally his troops around to do a “Mourinho Chelsea” in the first half and manage a “Klopp Liverpool” in the second half, then there is every chance they walk away with at least a point. It would be not just a battle of words and wits but also that of brains and brawn.
With qualification secured, the tourney is on to “who wants it most and why”. It will not be easy but with Mikel in the side, the Super Eagles post a team that has a player with experience at the highest level of the game – a leader who does not only show the way but also leads the way. Simply put, Mikel makes the Super Eagles tick every time. His experience combined with the grit of Wilfred Ndidi, industry of Ogenyi Onazi, flair of Alex Iwobi, creativity of Victor Moses, brute of Odion Ighalo and the will of the rest of the team, this Super Eagles side may just be too hot to handle if German gaffer Gernot Rohr can unleash them in the right way.
If the team play to their capacity, any chances that a team would do a Suarez “hand of God” or that they’d lose out cruelly in extra-time would be firmly dispelled as all games would be won in regulation time.
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Forget Jay-Jay Okocha; Samuel Eto’o Fills and Didier Drogba, with an injury-free Mikel Obi, Nigeria can afford to dream of the final at Saint Petersburg on Sunday, July 15 2018 with one hand on the trophy and rightfully so, he is the embodiment of the Nigerian spirit – humble beginning, never say die, serial winner, underappreciated, yet excelling on every side.