Group D: Nigeria’s Super Eagles are flying once again
Gernot Rohr has put his faith in youth and his vibrant side can reach the knockouts
Alex Iwobi in action for Nigeria against Argentina. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty
The Super Eagles are flying again, under the stewardship of German manager Gernot Rohr. Nigeria are one of the most consistent sides from Africa, with 2006 the only World Cup they have missed since they made their bow on the biggest stage in 1994. After an impressive qualification campaign hopes for this summer were further boosted thanks to a 4-2 friendly win over Group D rivals Argentina last November – and Nigeria will have legitimate hopes of springing a similar surprise in Russia.
Rohr has built a side with a solid spine complemented by a clutch of young, exciting players – there is a real exuberance and verve surrounding Nigeria. Captain John Obi Mikel remains the lynchpin of the side, and he is likely to be joined by one of the most promising young midfielders in the Premier League in Wilfred Ndidi – fitness allowing. Ahead of them Ndidi’s Leicester City team-mate Kelechi Iheanacho and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi offer pace in attack with former Watford striker Odion Ighalo expected to lead the line. Chelsea’s Victor Moses plays a huge role for his national side down the right. Nigeria’s main weakness lies at the back and particularly in goal, with a long-term replacement for Vincent Enyeama – who retired in 2015 – yet to be found.
World Cup moment
Nigeria’s maiden World Cup campaign started with a bang, as the Super Eagles dazzled in Dallas, beating Bulgaria 3-0. They topped their group and faced Italy in the last 16 – Roberto Baggio’s extra-time winner seeing the Azzuri through to the quarter-finals. Four years later they topped their group again – this time a 3-2 win over Spain the highlight.
How did they get here?
Nigeria had one of the toughest African qualification groups but progressed comfortably ahead of Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria with 13 points – their only defeat a dead rubber away to the latter.
Gernot Rohr has rejuvenated a Nigeria side who missed out on qualification for the two African Cup of Nations prior to his arrival. He has embraced youth, building his side around a number of younger stars and it has worked – World Cup qualification ultimately proved simple despite a difficult group.
The main man
John Obi Mikel anchors the side from midfield, and his experience will be vital in helping the younger players around him on the biggest stage. He is now plying his trade in China, but this World Cup should provide him with a swansong at the elite level.
The one to watch
21-year-old Wilfred Ndidi topped this year’s Premier League tackle charts despite missing the closing weeks of the season with a hamstring injury. His 138 tackles put him well clear of Idrissa Gueye (117) and N’Golo Kante (113). He will provide a dynamic, energetic presence in the middle.
Group D is tight, and Nigeria’s hopes of reaching knockouts are likely to hinge on their fixture with Croatia. They will fancy their chances of getting a result against Argentina, but it’s a case of last 16 at best.
Goalkeepers: Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United), Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna)
Defenders: William Troost-Ekong, Shehu Abdullahi (Bursaspor), Leon Balogun (Brighton) Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (FC Porto), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica)
Midfielders: Mikel Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City),Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), Joel Obi (Torino)
Forwards: Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho(Leicester City), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (FC Crotone), Victor Moses (Chelsea)