When Ahmed Musa woke up on Saturday morning, he had a new status as an unlikely hero in Argentina. The Leicester City striker scored two goals in Nigeria’s victory over Iceland in Volgograd on Saturday, keeping La Albiceleste’s faint hopes of reaching the World Cup last 16 alive despite them taking just one point from their opening two games.
Musa will not care one bit about his new-found popularity in Buenos Aires and Rosario; he was pleased to prove a point for his country and to Gernot Rohr, his manager, who started him on the bench against Croatia on matchday one, and even Leicester themselves. Perhaps they will be open to giving him another chance at the King Power Stadium, having sent him back to his former club CSKA Moscow on loan last season. But his presence in the side sparked a complete change in approach from the Croatia game which, despite the opposition’s quality, showed they simply brave or confident in their own ability.
Rohr threw caution to the wind with his team selection, sensing his side needed to show more going forward. Nigeria were vulnerable; defeat to Iceland would have seen their World Cup journey come to an end. Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho came in for Odion Ighalo and, perhaps more surprisingly, Alex Iwobi. While Ighalo looked isolated and ineffectual against Croatia, Iwobi struggled to impose him on the game, but he would have benefitted playing in a team with more attacking intent. As it was, the two strikers worked well between the lines, particularly in the second half when the game became more stretched.
When the game started, fear began to set in that Nigeria had not learned their lesson despite the changes. An injury in Iceland’s midfield meant Gylfi Sigurdsson dropped in and helped dictate the flow of the game, but as soon as Nigeria began to play longer balls over the top and into the wings, utilising the pace of Iheanacho, Musa and Victor Moses, the pattern changed. The first goal, just after the break, came from an Iceland throw in, which was cleared straight into the path of Moses, who crossed with great precision. But the hard work was all down to Musa; he set himself brilliantly with a first touch to bring the ball down, before smashing it past Hannes Halldorsson on the half volley. His second was equally as impressive; rounding the Iceland goalkeeper after being played in by Kenneth Omeruo.
Sigurdsson missed the chance to halve the deficit with a penalty, which he fired straight over the bar; Francis Uzoho’s clean sheet was well deserved, Nigeria’s teenage goalkeeper looked much more assured this time around. The ease in which Rohr’s men imposed themselves in the second half suggested they should have started the tournament in that manner; perhaps it was a tactical plan to stay compact and spring to life late on, which they did brilliantly. Their next challenge is to keep up their intensity against Argentina; Group D is among the most intriguing in the tournament. Croatia are safely through, while Iceland must beat them to stand a chance of joining them; Argentina need to beat Nigeria, for whom a draw is enough.
For the Super Eagles, there is a conundrum to be solved. Do they continue to play on the front foot against Argentina? Or revert into the timid, fearful, negative team that were so easily beaten by Croatia? With Lionel Messi on the opposing team, it would be easy to put safety first, but there will be opportunities to attack the Argentine defence, and both Croatia and Iceland had success in pressing their midfield, which has been non-existent at the tournament so far.
Musa has taken plaudits for his performance, and rightly so, but Iheanacho was the man who made their partnership work against Iceland. The former would drop deep and create the link between midfield and attack in the absence of Iwobi, while the latter ran the channels and created more of an outlet than Ighalo did. Seeing him on the bench in the first game was a surprise, but Nigeria certainly look more comfortable with him in the team.
The landscape of the entire group has changed heading into the final game, and it looks as though Nigeria are in with a shout of progression at the expense of Argentina. They picked their moments against Iceland but they must go for broke from the off and put Messi and co. under pressure. Whether Rohr recalls Iwobi remains to be seen, his guile may offer something more in possession, but Musa and Iheanacho helped the Super Eagles soar on Friday afternoon, and they can do exactly the same in the most crucial game of all.
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