After some disappointing pre-tournament results, some seemingly strange squad selection decisions and the underwhelming 0-0 opening game draw with Iran, there was a concern that Nigeria would be exposed against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Eastern Europeans, after all, had given a decent account of themselves against Argentina in their first-ever World Cup game.
Such joy for Nigeria fans, then, when the Super Eagles held on to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0. In doing so, they not only eliminated their main rivals to join Argentina in the last 16, they also pushed themselves into the driving seat to seal a spot in the knockout rounds.
The victory was Nigeria’s first in a World Cup in 16 years; it ended a run of nine matches without a win in the tournament and six games without a win since the middle of 2013. It was also notable for being Stephen Keshi’s first-ever victory over European opposition.
While the Super Eagles will now start facing opposition more taxing than Bosnia and Herzegovina, who weren’t able to build on their encouraging World Cup debut, there were enough signs to show that Nigeria have weapons enough to trouble the stronger sides they will likely encounter.
Peter Odemwingie, the goalscorer, won the Man of the Match award and, indeed, delivered a strong performance—one imagines it was exactly the kind of thing Keshi was hoping for when he went out on a limb to recall the controversial forward to his provisional World Cup squad of 30.
Odemwingie’s talents have rarely been disputed, but coming off the back of a Premier League season where he scored only six goals, at the age of 32, and with a history of tension with the manager, it was, without doubt, a gamble to turn to the former West Bromwich Albion man.
After an encouraging return to the side against Scotland, in a pre-tournament friendly, Odemwingie’s form has dropped off, and he was underwhelming against Greece, the United States and Iran.
While Odemwingie’s key contribution against Bosnia and Herzegovina was obviously his goal, he was also very influential as a passer, from a deeper role in midfield next to John Obi Mikel.
Operating on the right, the Stoke City man completed 46 of 50 passes, and formed a particularly encouraging relationship with the Chelsea midfielder. While Odemwingie carries a reputation as a self-serving player—at club level at least—he made a strong defensive contribution to the team as well, covering for the forward runs of Efe Ambrose and completing five of seven tackles.
Odemwingie’s experience and versatility are, for the time being, vindicating Keshi’s decision to take him to Brazil.
Beyond Odemwingie, there were several other contenders for the Man of the Match prize.
Emmanuel Emenike would be one.
The striker struggled to impose himself against Iran but relished the space afforded to him against Bosnia and Herzegovina (particularly behind Senad Lulic) and thrived when battling with Emir Spahic.
The Bayer Leverkusen defender struggled with both the pace and the physicality of Emenike, and while he might have succeeded in winning a free-kick after a tangle in the second half, he wasn’t so lucky before the break. On this occasion, the Fenerbahce man both outpaced and outmuscled him before crossing for Odemwingie to tap in.
While Emenike is nominally Nigeria’s centre-forward, he has long preferred operating from the right, finding space and profiting from the intelligent movement of players alongside him.
During the early part of 2013, Ideye Brown was the player whose selfless work off the ball allowed Emenike to prosper. Here, even without such a player, Emenike still sought to isolate the left-sided defender (Spahic) and tear down on goal.
On the 13 occasions that Emenike tried to beat his man on Saturday, he succeeded on eight occasions. In coming matches, when he comes up against the likes of Martin Demichelis or Philippe Senderos, he might be even more effective.
There were also impressive performances from Michael Babatunde and Ahmed Musa.
The former was a surprise inclusion in the starting line-up, replacing Victor Moses, but delivered a competent performance. In fact, he was a fairly surprising inclusion in the World Cup squad, having been absent from Keshi’s plans for almost a year before the tournament.
He wasn’t as direct nor as viscerally effective as Moses, but he was solid, retaining possession, recycling the ball as well as making several important tackles. Few of his passes were particularly dangerous (although he did manage two shots on target), but he was a tidy operator and brought balance to the midfield.
Musa’s pace alone can disrupt and unsettle a sluggish back line, helping to create space for others in the process, but he remains a frustrating performer. With a little refinement, he could be a lethal operator and he might make an impact against Argentina.
While the attackers stole the show and represented such a vast improvement on the dirge against Iran, it’s worth closing with a note on the defence.
Following the injuries to Elderson Echiejile (ahead of the tournament) and Godfrey Oboabona (during the Iran match), there was little hope that Nigeria’s defence would be able to withstand the onslaught anticipated from Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic and Co. on Saturday evening.
In truth, it could have been a different story, with Dzeko wrongly adjudged as being offside when he scored in the first half and Vincent Enyeama making a sterling late save to also prevent the Manchester City man from scoring.
Heading toward the end of the group stage, however, it is notable that Nigeria, along with Mexico, are one of only two teams yet to have conceded a goal in the competition.
This resiliency should be applauded, particularly considering the circumstances.
Juwon Oshaniwa and Joseph Yobo (the replacements for Elderson and Oboabona, respectively) still don’t fill observers with confidence, but they deserve credit for their two clean sheets to date.
Next up, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and the rest. After the turmoil of the last few weeks, Nigeria should just be delighted to break the hoodoo and have control of their destiny in their own tracks.
Keshi appears to have put Nigeria back on track, and the Super Eagles might be set to soar once more.
Stats via FourFourTwo StatsZone