Nigeria may have been defeated 3-2 by Argentina in their final Group F match, but as losses go, there won’t be too many that feel better than that.
In the group’s other fixture, a 3-1 victory for Bosnia and Herzegovina over Iran ensured that the Super Eagles had progressed to the last 16.
It has been a long old wait for the West African powerhouse—16 years, to be precise, since it last featured in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Since 1998, it was eliminated in the 2002 and the 2010 tournaments at the first hurdle (not winning a single game on either occasion), while it didn’t even qualify for the 2006 edition.
Finally, it has returned to the last 16, a stage that 170 million passionate Nigerians (and many more overseas) believe should be the absolute minimum aim.
In truth, there have been times over the last few months when the reigning continental champions looked like an outside bet to escape from the group.
Stephen Keshi bewildered with his personnel decisions before the competition, and the Super Eagles looked disjointed and lacked rhythm in pre-tournament friendlies against Scotland, the United States and Greece.
The failings continued through to their opening Group F fixture, where they were held by Iran in a dire 0-0 stalemate. While Team Melli’s subsequent resiliency against Argentina made Nigeria’s toil look a little more acceptable, there was no escaping the lethargy of the offensive or the lack of ideas both from the bench and from the centre of midfield.
The defence was also hit with injuries; Elderson Echiejile was ruled out before the tournament, while Godfrey Oboabona, the squad’s most present player over the last 18 months, was replaced during the match against Iran.
At this point, progression seemed like a distant hope rather than a fierce expectation.
Things turned around in the victory over Bosnia in Cuiaba. While the defence did look slightly rugged, the forwards, namely Emmanuel Emenike, Peter Odemwingie, Ahmed Musa and Michael Babatunde, boasted a menace throughout.
Perversely, while Nigeria registered a clean sheet against Bosnia and conceded three against Argentina, it was arguably in the latter game where their defence really impressed.
The goals can largely be accounted for. First of all, there was the genius of Lionel Messi. The Barcelona man scored twice and revisited his famous 2010 duel with Vincent Enyeama.
“Messi is one hell of a player”, Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi said after the match, as reported by The Guardian, “You can’t take it away from him. He is from Jupiter. He is different.”
Beyond the superstar No. 10, there remains a lingering fallibility at set pieces for Nigeria, a problem experienced by almost all of Africa’s five nations at one point or another in the tournament so far.
For vast portions of the game, however, the patched-up Super Eagles back line contained the myriad offensive options of La Albiceleste and restricted their illustrious opponents to long-range shots.
Considering the defence contained veteran Joseph Yobo—an elder statesman who enjoys little respect from Super Eagles fans—and Juwon Oshaniwa of FC Ashdod, a left-back who was ignored for over a year before the recent friendly against Mexico, this represents impressive coaching and organisation on the part of Keshi.
Many watching the game were acknowledging the fine understanding of the Super Eagles’ defensive unit. This has not been something that has grown organically over time; indeed, the back four that started against Argentina had only ever started one other game together—the previous match against Bosnia!
Admittedly, Alejandro Sabella’s side, enjoying a goal advantage and knowing only defeat would see them pushed from the summit of the group, were in cruise control. It is important to recognise, also, that Messi was withdrawn after only an hour, but there was enough in this performance to give Nigerians hope that they might not just unsettle France, but perhaps even beat them.
Les Bleus, after all, cannot boast a Lionel Messi.
Would Argentina, despite all of their attacking riches, have managed to find a way past the organised and controlled Nigerian back four, with the irrepressible Ogenyi Onazi marshalling the territory in front of them, without Messi?
Underpinning this fine defensive effort was Enyeama, a keeper who was introduced to an international public four years ago but who has only really received the recognition he deserves after a stunning season with LOSC Lille in Ligue 1.
Enyeama is growing into the tournament.
He made a vital late stop against Bosnia in the dying minutes of Nigeria’s last match and exuded confidence with his saves against Argentina. Two in particular, unfortunately both immediately preceding made goals, were of the highest quality.
He will surely relish the prospect of playing against France in the last 16. Enyeama is the touch of class that anchors the defence. With him there atoning for the errors of others, Nigerians will believe that anything is possible.
As Ahmed Musa demonstrated with two counter-attacking goals against Argentina, and as Emmanuel Emenike showed against Bosnia, the Super Eagles boast a major threat on the counter-attack. They possess the tools to down bigger sides, allowing the defence and Onazi to absorb waves of attack before the likes of Juwon Oshaniwa and John Obi Mikel can find the channels with long searching passes.
France’s full-backs, particularly Mathieu Debuchy on the right-hand side, love to get forward and support the forwards. And while Oshaniwa, in particular, risks being overwhelmed, Nigeria showed in their previous two games that they may well be equipped to profit from space left in behind.
The Super Eagles lack a classic playmaker, and thus while they might have struggled against, say, Switzerland, who would have afforded them less space, they could well thrive against France.
After the pre-tournament pessimism and the muted showing against Iran, Nigeria and Keshi have done well to both beat Bosnia and advance to the last 16. More impressive, however, have been the improving performances, both defensively and offensively.
Keshi knows how to manage a match and has the players to profit from space. There will be few fears in the Super Eagles camp ahead of the last-16 clash with France, and don’t be surprised if several in the squad are dreaming of becoming Africa’s fourth-ever representatives in the quarter-finals.