World Cup preview: Nigeria

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews Nigeria's hopes as the only African team to have qualified for both the 2014 and 2018 tournaments.

Since first appearing at the World Cup in a blaze of colour in 1994, Nigeria have made themselves a regular presence on the biggest stage.

Russia 2018 will be their sixth appearance from the last seven tournaments, and they usually make their mark in one way or another.

The Nigerian team lines up ahead of the World Cup warm-up match with England at Wembley on June 2, 2018© Reuters

The names of Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West and Finidi George are etched in the history books for Nigeria due largely to their exploits at the World Cup, and the class of 2018 will be desperate to join such exalted company.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Nigeria's chances at this summer's tournament in Russia.


GROUP

Group D is one of the more intriguing prospects at this summer's World Cup, with Argentina clear favourites to claim top spot but Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria all laying a strong claim for second place too.

World Cup Group D

Nigeria can boast the best qualifying campaign out of any of the teams in the group, with Argentina and tournament debutants Iceland only sealing their place in Russia on the final matchday, while Croatia needed a playoff to reach the tournament.

The Super Eagles take on Croatia and Iceland in their opening two matches, and they will hope that positive results in those will take some of the pressure off their closing contest with Lionel Messi's Argentina.

NIGERIA FIXTURES

June 16: Croatia vs. Nigeria (8pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)
June 22: Nigeria vs. Iceland (4pm, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd)
June 26: Nigeria vs. Argentina (7pm, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Nigeria were one of only two African nations to go through their qualifying campaign unbeaten, and they were the first to seal their place on the plane to Russia.

The Super Eagles began with a 2-0 aggregate victory over Swaziland to make it through to the group stages, where they were drawn alongside Zambia, Algeria and Cameroon - the latter two of whom both qualified for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

Nigeria celebrate after scoring against Swaziland during qualifying for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

However, Nigeria quickly established their dominance by winning their opening three games by a 9-2 aggregate scoreline, including a 4-0 drubbing of Cameroon in September 2017.

Indeed, Nigeria dropped only four points from their six outings, eventually securing their place at the tournament with a game to spare courtesy of a 1-0 win over Zambia - becoming the only African nation to have reached both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.


RECENT FORM

Nigeria were left to rue a slow start in their 2-1 loss to England at the start of the month, with their improved display after the restart seeing them pull one back but not a second at Wembley Stadium.

That was followed up by a 1-0 reverse against Czech Republic four days later, making it three defeats in their last four matches heading into the tournament.

Nigeria's Alex Iwobi scores during his side's international friendly with England at Wembley on June 2018© Reuters

The biggest positive for Nigeria from their pre-World Cup outings is that Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi was able to get some minutes under his belt following a couple of months on the sidelines.

Salisu Yusuf may be a little concerned about the lack of momentum his side have built up, though, having failed to win any of their last four matches since back-to-back wins over Argentina and Poland in November and March respectively.


SQUAD

Nigeria World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).

Defenders: William Troost-Ekong and Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge KSV), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Porto), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea).

Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy).

Forwards: Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester City), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone).


STAR PLAYER - John Obi Mikel

Nigeria's John Obi Mikel warms up ahead of his side's international friendly with England at Wembley on June 2, 2018© Reuters

His best years may now be behind him, having spent the past year-and-a-half playing for Chinese club Tianjin TEDA, but John Obi Mikel's influence on this Nigeria side cannot be overlooked.

At 31 years old, Mikel still has enough in the tank to drive his side forward and, as captain, will lead from the front at his second World Cup finals.

After being ruled out of South Africa 2010 through injury, the long-serving Chelsea midfielder produced a couple of standout displays in Brazil last time around as Nigeria reached the knockout stage for the first time since 1998.

Mikel has slipped behind Victor Moses as the most recognisable face in the side, and there is plenty of Premier League-level quality in attack, yet his ability to get the Super Eagles going marks the skipper down as the key man in the side.


MANAGER - Gernot Rohr

Nigeria manager Gernot Rohr on June 2, 2018© Reuters

After a long-serving stint as a Bordeaux player, Gernot Rohr began his managerial career with the French club and helped them to the final of the UEFA Cup in 1996.

Spells in France, Switzerland and Tunisia followed, but since 2010 the German has established himself as one of the most experienced managers in African football.

Appointed Gabon head coach in 2010, Rohr spent two years in that job before taking over Niger for a similar time, resigning in October 2014.

Next was a short-lived spell in charge of Burkina Faso in 2015 before the 64-year-old was appointed Nigeria boss in August 2016, going on to lead them to the World Cup as the first African nation to qualify.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Last 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)

Nigeria celebrate after scoring at the 1994 World Cup© Reuters

Nigeria burst onto the World Cup scene as debutants in 1994 with a 3-0 win over Bulgaria in their opening match, and they went on to finish above Bulgaria, Argentina and Greece to top that group.

A brace from Roberto Baggio saw Italy come from behind to beat Nigeria after extra time in the last 16, though, and heartbreak at that stage has become a familiar theme of the World Cup for the Super Eagles since.

Four years later they once again topped their group before losing to Denmark in the round of 16, and in Brazil four years ago it was France who ended their run after they had finished behind Argentina in the groups.

Argentina have been regular foes for Nigeria in the World Cup, remarkably being drawn in the same group as each other in five of Nigeria's six appearances at the tournament.

The Super Eagles have only failed to qualify once since their debut in 1994 - the 2006 tournament in Germany - but they were knocked out in the group stages in 2002 and 2010.

Overall Nigeria have played 18 World Cup matches, winning five, drawing three and losing 10 while scoring 20 goals and conceding 26.


PREDICTION

Nigeria will not go into their group as one of the favourites to progress, but we're backing them to upset the odds and beat Croatia to second place behind Argentina.

The chances of them making it any further than the last 16 look slim, though - they would likely run into France in the first knockout round and Les Bleus would surely be a challenge too big for them.

VERDICT: Last 16

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How far will Nigeria go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
4.3%
Last 16
21.7%
Quarter-finals
47.8%
Semi-finals
13.0%
Runners-up
0.0%
Winners
13.0%
Former Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu in action for Nigeria on January 31, 2006.
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