Nigeria vs Iceland: Mikel & Iwobi hold key for Super Eagles

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Now everybody at the World Cup has played at least once, there is a clearer idea how each team will get on for the rest of the tournament. Most of the bigger sides, those who can expect to challenge for the crown, have failed to impress so far, but while the likes of Brazil and Germany couldn’t to win in their opening games, the general consensus is that they will recover. For the likes of Nigeria and Iceland, though, the jury is still very much out.

Iceland refused to lie down against Argentina last week, and it really showed what heart and desire can do, no matter how small the country or the expectation on their shoulders, but doubts still remain as to whether they can usurp both La Albiceleste and Croatia to progress into the knockout stages. Nigeria are now one of those teams most under pressure, having not only suffered defeat to Croatia, but performed in a manner that suggested they are unlikely to go on much further. Gernot Rohr will know his side must offer more than they did in Kaliningrad on Saturday, and the responsibility to make sure they do falls at his feet.

The way teams have approached games in the first week of the World Cup has been disappointing on the whole; only England and Germany’s conquerors Mexico have adopted a high press. But perhaps Nigeria should look across at the other dugout for inspiration ahead of Friday’s game; Iceland reacted to Argentina’s shortcomings perfectly after Sergio Agüero opened the scoring. When they realised there was very little rhythm in their play, they began to push up the pitch, having initially planned to sit deep. The way they exploited the defensive frailties of Jorge Sampaoli’s men was extremely impressive, but it was a direct consequence of their growth in confidence. Nigeria, on the other hand, stuck with their original defensive structure throughout the defeat to Croatia, even when they went a goal down.

Gylfi Sigurdsson was, as he often is, Iceland’s brightest spark; but this time he went under the radar. He was the man who led the progression up the pitch towards their goalscorer in the 1-1 draw, Alfred Finnbogason. Rohr’s first job after watching the Croatia defeat will be to tell John Obi Mikel, his captain, to push on and link midfield to attack more; the former Chelsea man was so deep, playing alongside the two defensive midfielders, that Nigeria simply couldn’t break out when they had the ball.

Mikel was not the only player who failed to grab the game by the scruff of the neck for the Super Eagles; Alex Iwobi has grown into a vital cog in their attacking machine, but he didn’t show himself the way Sigurdsson did for Iceland by picking the ball up from deeper or wider positions and running at the Croat defence. He has shown he can do it for the national side, in qualification and the two big friendlies played over the past few months against Argentina and England, scoring three goals across both. He disappeared in the last game, and although he was isolated alongside Odion Ighalo and Victor Moses, he failed to stamp his authority and without that, Nigeria looked lost.

Most teams play not to lose their opening game of a tournament, but the pressure intensifies in the second match. The margin for error is significantly reduced and, for Nigeria, it is non-existent; they simply have to be brave and make a game of it. Iceland are not nearly as talented as Croatia, particularly in the midfield area, so there will be more opportunity to get forward and impact the game. The best way to do that is allow Iwobi to dictate the rhythm in the early stages and by utilising he and Moses in the wider areas. Iceland are a safety first outfit, but if they sense there is a lack of danger, they will begin to look for opportunities themselves. Kelechi Iheanacho came off the bench against Croatia; he is a more dynamic and varied attacking option than Ighalo and will be much better suited if his side have more of the ball, which they should.

Perhaps opening night nerves got the better of Nigeria against Croatia; their approach followed a theme from the first few games. The time has come for a different way of thinking, though; there are no excuses for not taking the game to an Iceland side who, despite some rather impressive results over the past two years, are not really fancied to go much further. This looks like it could be the meeting of the two Group D losers, but Nigeria can win it and stay alive if they go about it the right way.

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