As Super Eagles fly into Russia today from the team’s training base in Avita Resort in Bad Tatzmannsdorf, Austria, Skipper John Mikel Obi is unfazed by the underdog tag branded Nigeria.
The three-time African champions are the third team in Group D to arrive Russia as Argentina and Iceland landed 24 hours earlier. Croatia is expected to also hit town today ahead of their opening game with Nigeria on Saturday in Kaliningrad.
“We are okay with the garb of the underdog. But the (three) defeats in the warm up matches have done something for us – we have our heads firmly on our shoulders and we are focused.
“Together, we have reviewed the matches and learnt so many lessons. We will approach the World Cup matches differently,” Mikel told reporters before Eagles boarded the executive chartered jet for the Russian capital.
Eagles played against Argentina, Poland, Serbia, DR Congo, England and Czech Republic in friendlies, winning two, drawing one and losing three.
Sweet victories over two-time world champions Argentina (finalists at the last finals in Brazil) and Poland were followed by defeat by Serbia, a draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo and losses to England and the Czech Republic.
The Super Eagles who are in Russia for a sixth appearance at the Mundial emerged from an appropriately-styled ‘Group of Death’ in the African qualifying series, becoming the first African team to reach the finals in Russia.
Against Croatia on Saturday, Eagles will be banking on a balanced record of having won their opening match at the World Cup on two occasions, drawn once and lost twice. On the three occasions they have not lost their opening match (1994, 1998, 2014), the Eagles have progressed to the Round of 16.
An underwhelming recent record, being the lowest-ranked team in Group D and the lowest-ranked African team in the finals, plus a recent tag by FIFA as mere ‘perennial World Cup appearance-makers’ all tend to project the Eagles as a side waiting to be rolled over. That would be the biggest mistake of the so-called big teams.
In 1994, the Eagles, after winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, failed to excite in friendly games leading to the World Cup. But as debutants, they thrashed Bulgaria 3-0 on a sunny afternoon inside the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Four years later, they lost 1-5 to The Netherlands in their last friendly game before heading to France, only to shock World Cup favourites Spain 3-2 in their opening game at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes.
Rohr has only lost one competitive game since taking over the Super Eagles two years ago, and the former German international defender says his wards know how to get their spring back when the whistle goes for kick-off at the Kaliningrad Arena on Saturday.
“We will take it one match at a time. I love this group because we know how to rise to the occasion together. Nigeria will be ready for Croatia.”
For sure, the tactician has the pieces to craft a crack squad capable to surprising the bookmakers in Russia. Young goal-tender Francis Uzoho has logged useful hours since making his debut against Argentina in Krasnodar in November last year, and deputies Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi are even more experienced.
The dependable ‘Oyibo Wall’ of Leon Balogun and William Troost Ekong can trust either of Abdullahi Shehu and Bryan Idowu or Tyronne Ebuehi and Elderson Echiejile to cover the flanks well enough, and Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem are also available.
Skipper John Mikel Obi retains his steel and ball-holding ability in midfield, with Wilfred Ndidi having recovered from injury in good time and John Ogu showing versatility in recent games. Oghenekaro Etebo, Ogenyi Onazi and Joel Obi add to the options in that sector.
Speedster Ahmed Musa, Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi can combine to tear apart the opposition, and the world of football is still blissfully unaware of the ability of Italy-based Simeon Nwankwo.
GOALKEEPERS: Francis Uzoho; Daniel Akpeyi; Ikechukwu Ezenwa
DEFENDERS: Abdullahi Shehu; Tyronne Ebuehi; William Ekong; Leon Balogun; Chidozie Awaziem; Elderson Echiejile; Kenneth Omeruo; Bryan Idowu
MIDFIELDERS: Wilfred Ndidi; Mikel John Obi; Ogenyi Onazi; John Ogu; Oghenekaro Etebo; Joel Obi