It was barely a week into the World Cup but pundits could have been excused for picking out Nigeria as the worst team to have turned out in the competition, following their tournament opener. It was a damning indictment of how poor the Super Eagles were against Croatia, where they succumbed to a 0-2 defeat.
A day before Nigeria’s second group match, against Iceland, Luca Modric and Co ran circles around Argentina, something that might have softened the blow on the Super Eagles. The critics’ knives, which might have momentarily gone back their pockets after the Croats crushed a jaded Argentina outfit, showed their shiny sides once again after a meek first-half display against Iceland on Friday.
Nigeria became the first team to not attempt a shot of any kind in this tournament for an entire half. That too, after coach Gernot Rohr had shaken up his forward line, and seeing more of the ball. Iceland, on their part, buoyed by halting Lionel Messi and Co in their tracks on their World Cup debut, were better in comparison and created a few half-chances.
Argentina, whose hopes were pinned on Nigeria earning something out of the game, might have given up at the sound of the half-time whistle. There was no spark upfront and little creativity in midfield. Rohr’s strategy to attack from the flanks also did not yield the desired results at this stage.
Nigeria were in the game, though, and their defence wasn’t tested – it was their only saving grace before they came out for the second half. A win, at this point, felt like a dream. Nigeria needed not one, but several pastors along with hordes of “prayer warriors” for a turnaround in their fortunes. They had lost their last three World Cup games.
Skipper John Obi Mikel suddenly did not turn into Andres Iniesta, nor did Victor Moses own the right flank like Dani Alves. Wilfred Ndidi was not bossing the midfield all by himself either. The strategy remained the same: aggressively attack through the flanks with the hope that they can outrun the Iceland defence. There was a little more desire and energy from the three-time African champions.
The opening goal of the game arrived from the flanks. Space opened up for Moses, who drilled in a low cross into the box. Ahmed Musa took an exquisite first touch and volleyed it home with his second.
Iceland, stunned, threw men forward and made a host of changes in quick succession to shake things up. A sense of desperation crept into Heimir Hallgrimsson’s camp. That was hardly the case against Argentina, despite the two-time champions raiding their area and unleashing one shot after another.
The killer blow came 15 minutes from time as Iceland were caught napping on the counter-attack. Musa took his time, teased the defence, picked his spot before smashing it home.
Rohr wins tactical battle
What started out as a dreary fare turned into fascinating tactical battle as the game progressed. After the Croatia defeat, Rohr changed personnel and his system – something that was catastrophic for Argentina only a day earlier.
Hallgrimsson, who deployed a slightly conservative 4-5-1 against the Argentinians, went for a 4-4-2. Nigeria outnumbered Iceland in the centre of the pitch. Ndidi was now getting space to run at the Iceland defence, and came close to scoring with a thunderous shot that went only a couple of feet over the bar. Moses was a menacing presence on the flanks.
One major letdown for Iceland was playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson enduring a day to forget. Apart from missing a crucial penalty five minutes from time, the Everton midfielder was easily dealt with by the Nigerians. Playing in a slightly withdrawn position may have contributed in Sigurdsson looking uncomfortable on the ball.
The brain of Nigeria’s midfield, Mikel, was on the other hand restored to his favoured position of playing deep. As always, the 31-year-old pulled the strings for his side without doing anything fancy.
The ramifications might be severe for Iceland, who face the high-flying Croats in their last group encounter. Nigeria, meanwhile, face Argentina in a winner-takes-it-all contest. From being the whipping boys-elect in their group, Nigeria now harbour dreams of reaching the round of 16. Such is their surge in confidence that Musa is confident of stealing Messi’s thunder.
Somewhere, Jorge Sampaoli and his team will be breathing a sigh of relief. Given how dysfunctional and out of sorts Argentina were against Iceland and Croatia, one simply cannot rule out Nigeria making Group D’s narrative their own.