Argentina and Nigeria would once again rekindle their rivalry at the Group stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. For the Super Eagles, it would be the fourth time in their five appearances that they would be paired up against the South American giants having being in the same group in 1994, 2002 and 2010.
They are joined by debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina and Asian side Iran.
Argentina are seen as clear favorites to not only qualify but also top the Group with most pundits tipping the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Zmajevi of Bosnia to battle for second place which leaves Iran as bookmakers bet to finish bottom.
Would there be a twist in the tale?
Would Iran defy the odds and book their place in the Next Round?
Would the weight of expectation overwhelm the Bosnians?
Would the Super Eagles win a World Cup Game for the first time in sixteen years (1998)?
So many questions that would be answered in a couple of weeks time but for now, let’s take a peep into the teams and see what could strengthen or mar their chances of World Cup Glory.
We’ll kick off with the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Team Melli of Iran with the Preview on Argentina and Bosnia coming up afterwards.
Enjoy the Ride!
NICKNAME: Team Melli Iran
CAPTAIN: Javad Nekounam
FIFA RANKING: 37th
MOST CAPS: Ali Daei (149)
MOST CAPS (CURRENT SQUAD): Javad Nekounam (137)
MOST GOALS: Ali Daei (109)
MOST GOALS (CURRENT SQUAD): Javad Nekounam (37)
FIFA WORLD CUP APPEARANCES: This will be their fourth appearance at the World Cup. Their first was at the 1978 World Cup.
BEST PERFORMANCE AT THE WORLD CUP FINALS: First Round, the 1978 World Cup, the 1998 World Cup and the 2006 World Cup.
HEAD COACH: Carlos Queiroz
PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
KEY PLAYER: Reza Ghoochanneljhad:
With 9 goals in 11 caps, the Charlton would be key to whatever chances Iran would have in Brazil.
He’s got pace and would be the key creative outlet for his team.
Big Job ahead for Him!
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Karim Ansari, Javad Nekounam and Ashkan Dejagah
ROUTE TO FINALS: First in Group A of the Asian Qualifying Section. Finished ahead of South Korea
STRONG TEAM ETHIC:
As typical of every Queiroz side, this Iran team is well organized, defend in numbers and look to catch their opponents on the break using the pace of talisman, Ghoochanneljhad.
They conceded only two goals in eight matches during the final round of qualifying and that should say a lot about their defensive strength.
With Jala Hosseini the main-man in defence,it’s easy to see why they’ve been strong defensively.
This approach has worked in Asia. Would it work at the World Stage in Brazil?
Team Melli, on paper, are clear underdogs in the Group which means the other teams would see them as the whipping boys and would go all out against them to boost their Goal difference margin.
This aggressive approach to be adopted by their Group Opponents would play into the hands of Queiroz side who would exploit spaces left behind and with a certain Reza, you never know, we could be having a 2014 version of Greece 04 in Group F.
Also, having the tag of an underdog will mean they play with less pressure as the Argentines, the Super Eagles and Bosnia simply have to win.
They might not have finest of players around but in Queiroz, they have someone who has worked with the very best and at the very best.
The 61 year old was on two different occasion, Assistant Coach to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Switched between those periods, he had a spell as the Manager of Real Madrid
At the International Stage, Queiroz managed South Africa between 2000 and 2002 and was the Head Coach of Portugal at the 2010 World Cup.
With the Team Melli, he’s lost only five of his thirty-seven games till date with a win-loss percentage of 51.35%.
He’ll definitely have no business kicking the ball, but with his instructions from the dugout, you can expect some magic.
LACK OF QUALITY PREPARATION
Failure to get top-class opposition has forced Queiroz men to play the likes of Angola, Belarus and Montenegro with Jovetic side looking the only above average side.
With due respect to the teams, it’s not the ideal of preparation as these teams won’t expose their flaws which could then be ruthlessly dealt with at the World Cup by the likes of Argentina, Bosnia and Nigeria.
They’ve struggled to score goals. They found the back of the net eight times during qualifiers and in their friendly matches this year, they lost 2-1 to Guinea, drew 0-0 with Belarus, played out another stalemate with Montenegro and then a 1-1 draw with Angola.
There’s also lack of depth in this team and lastly creativity in the midfield is an issue. They could struggle to create opportunities against the bigger sides.
“I cannot give a number. The key will be in our preparation. If we work hard, we will have a good opportunity. If not, we won’t be in a position to take our chance. For us, qualification was hell, so being in this group now is like heaven.
For my players, it should be an honour to play against these rivals and it is important they go out and enjoy every minute of every match, eager to make it to the second round. Facing Argentina at the Maracana?
Let’s hope we can give Argentina a headache… Dreaming doesn’t pay the bills!”
On paper, they should be the group’s whipping boys. Football has however thrown and would still throw upsets. Who says they can’t cause an upset here?
The first game against Nigeria is in all fairness not the most difficult of starts but if there is any team they should feel confident against, it should be Bosnia who they’ve never lost to.
That said and done, it would be a shock if they don’t finish fourth.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD AGAINST GROUP OPPONENTS: (W-D-L): 0-0-1 against Nigeria, 4-1-0 against Bosnia, yet to play against Argentina.
IRAN’S SQUAD FOR THE FIFA WORLD CUP:
GOALKEEPERS: Daniel Davari (Eintracht Braunschweig), Alireza Haghighi (Sporting Covilha, on loan from Rubin Kazan) and Rahman Ahmadi (Sepahan).
DEFENDERS: Mahini (Persepolis), Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), Pejman Montazeri (Umm Salal), Jalal Hosseini (Persepolis), Amir- Hossein Sadeghi (Esteghlal), Ahmad Alenemeh (Naft), Hashem Beikzadeh (Esteghlal) and Mehrdad Pouladi (Persepolis)
MIDFIELDERS: Javad Nekounam (Kuwait SC), Andranik Teymourian(Esteghlal), Reza Haghighi (Persepolis), Ghasem Haddadifar (Zob Ahan), Bakhtiar Rahman (Foolad)and Ehsan Hajsafi (Sepahan)
FORWARDS: Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham), Masoud Shojaei (Las Palmas), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (NEC Nijmegen), Reza Ghoochanneljhad (Charlton),Karim Ansarifard (Tractor Saz, on loan from Persepolis) and Khosro Heydari (Esteghlal).
WORLD CUP ODDS: 750/1
NICKNAME: Super Eagles
CAPTAIN: Vincent Enyeama
FIFA RANKING: 44th
MOST CAPS: Joseph Yobo (96)
MOST CAPS (CURRENT SQUAD): Joseph Yobo (96)
MOST GOALS: Rashidi Yekini (37)
MOST GOALS (CURRENT SQUAD): Emmanuel Emenike and Peter Odemwingie (10)
FIFA WORLD CUP APPEARANCES: This is the Super Eagles fifth appearance at the Mundial. Their début was at the 1994 World Cup in the United States of America.
BEST PERFORMANCE AT THE WORLD CUP FINALS: Round of Sixteen (1994 and 1998). At the1994 World Cup, the Super Eagles lost to Roberto Baggio’s winner for Italy in extra-time while in the 1998 World, they were pummeled 4-1 by Denmark.
HEAD COACH: Stephen Keshi
PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-3-3/4-2-3-1
Emenike might bang in goals, Enyeama might prevent them at the other end but there’s no denying who the main man is, it’s Chelsea Man, John Obi Mikel.
This last year has seen put his best performances in the Green and White Jersey and most Nigerians would hope he can come up with a similar level of performance after a lean season with the Blues.
Unlike at Chelsea where he shields the defence to prevent goals, for the Super Eagles, he has the responsibility of piercing through the opposition defence to create goals.
He is the main hope of Nigeria in terms of creativity as he is surrounded by ball-winners and others who are yet to justify their worth in the Eagles Jersey.
Should he come up with a brilliant outing and possibly add a few goals, then a country of over 150 million inhabitants would have a reason to smile.
He made 36 appearances for Chelsea this last season, scored twice and also had an assist while for Nigeria; he has four goals in fifty one caps till date.
It is worthy of mention that this would be his first appearance at the mundial at the ripe age of 27.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Emmanuel Emenike, Vincent Enyeama, Kenneth Omeruo, Ogenyi Onazi and Victor Moses.
ROUTE TO FINALS:
Topped Group F of the CAF Qualifying Section with 12 points, 5 clear of Malawi to advance to the play-off where Keshi’s Men saw off the challenge of East African side, Ethiopia, 4-1 on aggregate to book their ticket to Brazil.
Unlike other African Countries who rely on individuals to bail them out, the Super Eagles under Keshi has become a collective unit with the emphasis on team rather than individuals.
Playing as a unit, among other reasons, makes it difficult for the opposition to target individuals and when individuals go missing, others can step up the plate and not suffer a meltdown.
The only other African Country at the World Cup that has a better team play than the Eagles is the Black Stars of Ghana but unfortunately, they are in a Group of Death.
Arsene Wenger’s assertion that a greater team play could see the Super Eagles qualify for the next Round is spot on.
In Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria boasts a wonderful attacking triumvirate that can trouble any defence.
Others like Ameobi and Uchebo offer something different to Keshi in terms of aerial threat and direct play which would no doubt be an asset.
Not only do the Eagles have them in quantity but also in quality; Musa and Moses bring pace and direct running which would run fear into opposition fullbacks while the likes of Uchebo and Shola have impressed and scored in recent friendly matches against Scotland and Italy respectively.
Enyeama would be going to the World Cup not only as Africa’s Best Goalie but also as one of the best in Europe after a remarkable season with Lille that saw equal an 11 successive clean sheet French Record at some point.
This is the 31 year old 3rd appearance at the Finals and with the experience garnered through the years, Nigerians have no worries about that department.
He’ll once be expected to thwart Messi and Co as he did in South Africa
For the record, he made 38 appearances for Lille, conceded 26 and kept a whooping 21 clean sheets.
IMBALANCE IN THE TEAM:
The 23 man list released by Keshi on Monday raised eye-brows and made some eyes roll .That’s, among other reasons, down to the fact that there’s an imbalance in the side.
Starting from the defence, the writer wonders why the Big Boss decided to go with Five Central Defenders out of the eight Outfield defenders going to the World Cup.
Someone might raise the issue of Odunlami being a right back backup to Efe Ambrose but anyone who watched the Friendly against Gordon Starchen’s Scotland would agree with me that the Sunshine Stars Defender is better as Central Back and ill-suited for the Right Back Position where he was consistently skinned by the Scot Winger, Ikechi Anya.
Moving to the midfield, Keshi picked only 5 midfielders with only one, Mikel, the closest to creativity. The likes of Onazi and Azeez are better winning the ball and for Michael Babatunde and Reuben Gabriel; I simply don’t know where they fit in as I’m literally racking my brain as to how their names got in the list (with all due respect).
That leaves the entire creative burden on Chelsea’s defensive Midfielder, Mikel Obi. Against defensive teams like Iran, it might be a little difficult to break them down if the Super Eagles decide to go through the middle and against sterner opposition like Argentina and Bosnia, the Eagles would not see enough of the ball to expose the weakest links of these teams, the defence.
The Big Boss probably realized his gaffe and decided to play Odemwingie in the ‘hole’ or better still as an Advanced Playmaker in the 4-2-3-1 Formation in yesterdays bore draw against Greece.
The experiment failed spectacularly as the 32 year old is not a playmaker but it will interesting to see if he persists with it, and should he, whether it will draw a reaction from the Stoke Forward should things go wrong.
It still looks a suspect to me; Ambrose and Echiejile play more like wing-backs and could be punished on the break and backups, Kunle Odunlami and Juwon Oshaniwa don’t inspire any sort of confidence.
In the middle, Omeruo and Oboabona look settled but should they get injured or suspended, then the doors would be flung open for Azubuike and Yobo to take centre stage.
The former looks decent with decent performances but could be turned inside out rather too easily in a way that the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson would be proud of while the latter has the experience and brain but unfortunately no legs.
NO QUALITY BACK-UPS
Apart from the starting eleven which looks strong, there are no quality backups.
The goal-keeping department looked secure until last week when Ejide reminded Nigerians and the rest of the World that he was equally adept as a Comedian with an howler against Scotland at the Craven Cottage.
In the defence, Odunlami and Oshaniwa would send Nigerian hearts racing should they come in as substitutes against Argentina with the likes of Messi, Kun and Di Maria.
The midfield also lacks creativity.
While other teams would call upon a super sub, for Nigeria, it could be a case of the starters playing well.
LACK OF COHESION OR POOR CONCENTRATION
The lack of cohesion and concentration in this side means they play well against the bigger sides but still ultimately lose. This has not been solved and could rear its ugly head at the showpiece.
Defeats against Spain, Uruguay and the draw against Italy all met the regular chorus “they played well”
“I would rate it as a six because we play against three teams with totally different playing styles. We don’t know Iran or Bosnia in great detail yet, but it seems as if we play against Argentina in every World Cup – and it has always been difficult. Obviously I respect all three, though we have no reason to fear any of them. The most important thing is to prepare for the first game because that will show us what we are made of”
This is a fair draw for the Eagles which would no doubt leave most fans optimistic about their chances of progressing. History has however shown that while they play better against the stronger sides, they struggle against the less fancied ones.
The Eagles picked up only one point in the 2010 Group B that contained the likes of Greece and South Korea and it took them until the third game of the 2013 AFCON to seal their qualification after being drawn against Burkina Faso, Zambia and Ethiopia. None of their group opponents; especially Iran and Bosnia should be underestimated.
The key game should be against Bosnia with one of the two most likely to qualify with Argentina.
Games against Argentina, “Nigeria’s fierce lovers” have always ended in slender margins so the fans should probably not expect a bashing.
As for the Semi-Final target, that looks highly unlikely but a decent draw against one of the weaker sides in Group E, should they progress out of the Group, could see the Super Eagles set a National Best of the Quarter-Final which would be an achievement.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD AGAINST GROUP OPPONENTS:
The Super Eagles and Argentina have met six times on the International Stage with the South Americans winning four, held once and losing the other one.
Iran and Nigeria have previously met once and it was a Friendly Match which the West African Side won 1-0
Bosnia and Nigeria have however not met in any competitive fixture. The World Cup would be the first.
NIGERIA’S 23 MAN SQUAD FOR THE 2014 WORLD CUP
- GOALKEEPERS: Vincent Enyeama(Lille), Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be’er Sheva) and Chigozie Agbim (Gombe United)
- DEFENDERS: Elderson Echiejile (Monaco), Efe Ambrose (Celtic), Godfrey Oboabona (Rizespor), Azubuike Egwueke (Warri Wolves), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea), Juwon Oshaniwa (Ashdod),Joseph Yobo (Norwich, on loan from Fenerbache)and Kunle Odunlami (Sunshine Stars).
- MIDFIELDERS: John Mikel Obi (Chelsea), Ramon Azeez (Almeria), Ogenyi Onazi (Lazio), Reuben Gabriel (Waasland-Beveren) and Michael Babatunde (Volyn Lutsk).
FORWARDS: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Shola Ameobi (Newcastle), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbache), Michael Uchebo (Cercle Brugge), Peter Odemwingie ( Stoke City), Victor Moses (Liverpool, on loan from Chelsea) and Uche Nwofor (Heerenveen).
WORLD CUP ODDS: 200/1