Gernot Rohr’s biggest achievement as Nigeria coach is the serenity with which they have reached this World Cup. None of the disputes or controversies that overshadowed the preparations of African teams leading up to previous tournaments has afflicted this young, dynamic and united group of players.
It is a balanced team, founded on the solid centre-back partnership of new Brighton signing Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong. John Obi Mikel is the creative hub of a midfield that also features Leicester City youngster, Wilfred Ndidi, while in attack Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi provide the ammunition for former Watford striker, Odion Ighalo.
The only significant area of concern is in goal, where the retirement of Vincent Enyeama and Carl Ikeme’s leukaemia diagnosis have left Rohr lacking in experienced options. Francis Uzoho, the 19-year-old, who has made just two senior appearances for Deportivo La Coruna, is favourite to get the nod in Russia.
A friendly win over Group D opponents Argentina in November inflated expectations, only for subsequent defeats against Serbia and England to provide a clearer indication of where this team is. Consistency remains elusive and this World Cup may come a little too soon for Uzoho and several others, but it is clear that Rohr is building something.
Who do they play?
Nigeria versus Croatia – 20:00, Saturday, June 16, Nigeria versus Iceland – 16:00, Friday, June 22 and Nigeria versus Argentina – 19:00, Tuesday, June 26.
John Obi Mikel: Now 31, Mikel remains as crucial to Nigeria as ever. He has always assumed more creative responsibility for his country than he was entrusted with in 11 years at Chelsea, but Rohr has moved him slightly deeper into a position where he can control the tempo of matches as well as affecting things in the final third.
Victor Moses: Chelsea fans may find watching Moses at the World Cup a slightly surreal sight. Transformed into a capable right wing-back by Antonio Conte over the last two seasons, he is deployed as a flying left winger for Nigeria, tasked with carrying the ball upfield in transition and committing defenders. The quality of his final ball could prove crucial to determining his country’s fortunes.
Leon Balogun: Recognition has been a long time coming for Balogun, who earned a move to Brighton this summer on the strength of a decade of steady improvement in the Bundesliga. His first Nigeria cap did not arrive until he was 25, but Balogun’s ball-playing ability perfectly complements the more imposing Troost-Ekong and he is a big part of the spine of Rohr’s team.
One to watch
Alex Iwobi: The luring of Iwobi away from the England set-up in 2015 was a considerable coup for Nigeria, and the Arsenal star provides much-needed imagination in attack for the country of his birth. Starting on the right flank, he regularly drifts inside to more dangerous pockets of space around the penalty area, and recent goals in friendlies against Argentina and England underlined his threat.
How did they get here?
Nigeria surprisingly cruised through a strong qualifying group that featured Cameroun, Algeria and Zambia, taking 14 points from six matches – though this was later reduced to 13 when they were found to have fielded an ineligible player in a match against Algeria. Moses led the team in scoring with three goals in four appearances.
How will they do?
The first match against Croatia will be crucial. Win it, and Nigeria has a good chance to beat Iceland and qualify from Group D without any pressure on the final game against Argentina. On the other hand, a slow start is likely to be punished, leaving Rohr’s men in the unenviable position of needing to beat Messi to progress. Making the round of 16 would be a positive step.
Odds of winning the tournament: 200/1
Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).
Defenders: William Troost-Ekong and Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Ado Den Haag), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge KSV), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes FC), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa).
Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy).
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone).
• Culled from independent.co.uk