FEATURE: The Super Eagles as underdogs in Russia

World Cup 2018 By: Imo-owo Mbede | 04/12/2017

With the 2018 World Cup final draws finally out, the Super Eagles can begin to plan for the first round of matches where Croatia, Iceland and perennial adversaries Argentina lie in wait. Going by their recent performances, the Super Eagles look capable of qualifying from Group D – at least on paper. However, the other teams in the group have as much of a chance, if not more, in a group that promises to be very competitive.

An unimpressive qualifying campaign and a defeat to the Super Eagles in a recent friendly notwithstanding, Argentina will always be a tough nut to crack at the World Cup. After coming up second-best at the last World Cup, Russia 2018 presents the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Nicolas Otamendi and Sergio Romero a last shot at becoming World Cup winners during their playing career. With this added impetus, Messi and company are guaranteed to show up guns-blazing in Russia, alongside a well-known star-studded cast.

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Only two years ago Iceland would have been considered the whipping boys of this group, but this will clearly not be the case – even as debutants – in Russia next year. Following their impressive quarter-final finish at their maiden Euro Championship last year with World Cup qualification (topping their group ahead of Turkey, Ukraine as well as group rivals Croatia) the Icelanders have underlined their rising profile as a force to be reckoned with. With Sylfi Sigurdsson and Aron Gunnarsson as, perhaps, their only stand-out players, Iceland’s strengths lie in team-work, organization and a great physical condition.

Bronze medallists at the 1998 World Cup, the Croats have failed to hit the same heights since then; but not for lack of effort. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren are only a few members of a talented team of experienced performers who, like the Argentines, will be looking to prove a point and perhaps, a final hurray in Russia. The manpower is available, as is the experience.

How does Nigeria rate alongside these other countries? The current Super Eagles team is composed largely of young but talented players, majority of whom have never played at the World Cup. In the current team, only Captain Mikel Obi, Victor Moses, Ogenyi Onazi, Ahmed Musa and Uwa Echiejile have previous World Cup experience – and one or two of them may not make it to Russia. When compared, man-for-man, with the duo of Argentina and Croatia, the Eagles fall short on experience at this level.

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The current Super Eagles is evidently not lacking in talent. However, it is still an evolving incoherent group yet to ascertain its best team and in what formation. The team is also lacking balance in its composition due to the dearth of creative and striking options. This cannot be said about any of the Eagles’ first round opponents.

The bulk of the Argentine team was at the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Copa America. Croatia was also at the 2014 World Cup and last year’s Euro Championship, while the Icelanders are still reaping from their Euro 2016 experience. Aside playing qualifying and friendly matches spread over the last year and half, the Eagles have not had any opportunity for proper self-appraisal in competition situation.

Given these not-too-impressive credentials, it won’t be entirely wrong to consider Nigeria as the underdogs in their World Cup group. Encouragingly, Coach Gernot Rohr’s young side has shown thorough determination, immense potential and the capability to pull off a surprise or two. Resounding victories over Cameroun and Argentina recently are evidence of this, but have only served to heighten expectations.

It remains to be seen whether the Super Eagles is capable of serving up these sorts of performances at the World Cup proper and qualify from a very competitive first round group. The Super Eagles has what it takes to – from the position of an underdog – because being the better team never guarantees victory. The winner is always the team which manages, through hard work or sheer luck, to outscore the other during the allowed 90 minutes.