A Moment For: Nigeria

This post has been four to five years in the making. I’ve been banging on and banging on about Nigeria to any breathing creature with ears for seemingly eons. And now the time has come!

Forget the flawless jerseys and training gear, this Nigeria team is full of ability and certainly one to be reckoned with. I’ve been watching these players develop for years and have been rambling on about the expanse of talent they possess.

I picked Nigeria to win gold at Rio 2016. The “experts” didn’t see them coming apparently as they “shocked” the Olympics by grabbing bronze. It was no shock. And gold was in their capable reach. This country manufactures quality. And this is the latest golden era.

The Super Eagles have finely honed savvy top to bottom. At the back they have Leon Balogun. This German-born defender just signed to the Premier League’s Brighton & Hove Albion and at 29 years old is in his prime. And will need to be. They also boast William Troost-Ekong. Born in The Netherlands, this Bursaspor (Turkey) centre back is one to watch. He provides a stability I trust and at 24 years old already has 21 caps to his name. Balogun and Troost-Ekong can be deployed in a back two or three and will be relied upon to lead the defence.

In the midfield is where Nigeria should shine. They have experience and nous. Their rock is of course the country’s captain and world class talent John Obi Mikel. The former Chelsea lynchpin has won every single domestic trophy on offer: the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Charity Shield, the Champions League and the Europa League. He made 249 appearances for the West London club over a glory-filled span of 11 years. He now plies his trade in China for Tianjin, but can be the anchor this country needs. Nigeria will go as far as Obi Mikel can take them. He will need to be tireless and disciplined as he holds the midfield.

But hold on, there are other useful pieces in this middle: Ogenyi Onazi of Turkey’s Trabzonspor is a star and can be a game changer in the center. Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi is a young and versatile option in defence or midfield. Joel Obi plays on the left and has proven solid at Torino making 46 appearances over the last couple of seasons in Italy (he was one to watch six years ago as he featured heavily for a top class Inter side as a 21 year old). John Ogu is another adaptable midfielder who can also play as part of the back line. He’s a veteran presence with three straight Israeli Premier League winners’ medals around his neck for Hapoel Be’er Sheva. These aren’t nobodies and I put my faith in them to be wanting to let the world know the same.

Going forward in attack are the Nigerians on the billboards and in the Nike adverts. Their out and out best player skills, current form and technique-wise is Victor Moses. It took him some time and quite a bit of bouncing around but he finally hit his heights in productivity these last two years at Chelsea. He plays week in and week out for Antonio Conte and has a Premier League title to boot. Nigeria use him much further forward (his original position) compared to Chelsea who strictly see him as a wing back. The attack will run through Moses. He will need to find his feet instantly as his duties in this role on the wing or tucked in behind the forwards is much different to supporting a back three in the Premier League. The pressure is on him to be a superstar and carry the weight of the offense. At Chelsea he is not the focal point. This is not the case for Nigeria and he will be expected to produce magic.

The same can be said about Alexander Iwobi. A role player at Arsenal, Iwobi will be entrusted with hitting the back of the net for Nigeria. He just turned 22, with absurd potential, and will be utilized in the middle of a five man midfield, further forward on the wing or up front as a striker. Basically, wherever he is needed.

Leading the line for Nigeria will be the likes of Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa. Ighalo in 2015-16 was everybody’s new favorite player as he ripped apart the Premier League for Watford. I saw this phenom in person and he was as advertised. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to replicate that form since as he left England after severely plateauing and now scores goals for China’s Changchun Yatai. Musa never really excelled at Leicester as he should have and now is back on loan with CSKA Moscow where he enjoyed a successful four year spell earlier in his career. He will be familiar with the Russian grounds and fans and as hungry as ever to get his name back on the tips of every scouts’ tongues.

Lastly, Kelechi Iheanacho will also be on the plane to Russia. He has been largely forgotten as he hasn’t quite fulfilled his true promise yet. After emerging as a budding star for Manchester City, he got signed by Leicester and has just not really ever kicked on. He’s still quite young at 22, so has time, but has yet to really carry on his development. I expect him to be on Nigeria’s bench, but will be a definitive threat once on the opposition will be wary of.

Now…let’s hang on for a second and not get lost in all the hoopla. Nigeria are a dangerous team, but it’s not all roses. The stars I’ve mentioned aren’t in the best form they are capable of hitting. They need to collectively step up to the occasion. And their results, while good, have also included some bruising losses of late. The spate of recent friendlies haven’t been encouraging with defeats against Czech Republic, England and Serbia whilst only managing to score a solitary goal. They drew with DR Congo in that run as well. Nigeria did beat Poland in March of this year 1-0 and ran rampant in the African Nations Championship (a tournament where only players playing club football in their home country can suit up for the National team), eventually getting soundly beaten in the final 4-0 to an extremely adept Moroccan team. So it’s definitely a mixed bag.

The Super Eagles qualified for Russia with efficiency and a no nonsense approach. They dismissed a ballyhooed Algeria, the 2017 AFCON champions Cameroon and a surprisingly plucky Zambia en route to topping their table. Their reward though was a brutal draw as a Pot 4 country in which they fell into the Group of Death at the World Cup. And that’s where the true misery lays her head. The work put in and the talent on show for these Nigerians leading up to 2018 may all be for naught. They find themselves tussling with Cup contenders Argentina and a ferociously lethal duo of Croatia and Iceland. It seems unfair. To someone like this writer who has been waiting for this crop of Nigerians to pounce on top of the global stage for so long, it frankly seems unjust.

But who knows? Football is a funny game. The one thing I’m certain of is that if Nigeria play like they can and get comfortable in Russia, don’t be surprised if one of these so called big guns books an early ticket home. The Super Eagles will need to be just that to progress and thankfully for the country and its fans, they have the artillery. So why not them?

Watch this space.

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