Nigeria needs win against Iceland after opening defeat
VOLGOGRAD, Russia (AP) — Few teams in this World Cup have underperformed their potential as much as Nigeria. And while it's still early in the tournament, few have exceeded expectations more than Iceland.
The teams meet in Volgograd on Friday in their second group match, and Nigeria faces the prospect of an early exit if it loses after falling 2-0 to Croatia.
By contrast, Iceland would take a big step toward the round of 16 with a victory. Iceland, in its first World Cup, is the smallest nation to ever compete in the tournament with a population of barely a third of a million. But there was no inferiority complex when it came to playing two-time world champion Argentina in the first group match. Its 1-1 draw against Lionel Messi's team was achieved through resilient and nerveless play.
Iceland's bearded captain Aron Gunnarsson said the adrenaline was high for a while after the match and is urging his teammates to keep a lid on their emotions.
The point against Argentina would be of no use, he said, "if we don't focus on Nigeria and don't get a result."
Nigeria will have no excuse for underestimating Iceland.
Though this current crop of Super Eagles is the youngest in the World Cup with an average age of just below 26, a lot is always expected from Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa with some 185 million people. Yet since its World Cup debut in 1994, the team has yet to progress beyond the round of 16, including four years ago in Brazil when Nigeria lost 2-0 to France at that stage.
"We have to win against Iceland," Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said. "If we win the next game, all is possible for the qualification."
Rohr has conceded that his young charges made mistakes against Croatia, notably on corner kicks, and that is something they will have to address before the Iceland match.
"These young players need a little time. They learn," he said. "Sometimes it's a little bit naive on the set pieces, but we will work on it."
He also hinted that the speedy Ahmed Musa may play from the start to bolster the attack and stretch the play across the field.
Rohr also could move to a three-man defensive line after having opted for four against Croatia's three-man attacking lineup. But Rohr said Jon Obi Mikel, Nigeria's experienced captain, will likely continue to play in an offensive midfield position. For much of his career, particularly when at Chelsea, the 31-year-old has filled a more defensive role.
"Since I'm in Nigeria, two years now, we played all the time with him in this role of offensive midfielder, and it was going very well," said Rohr said. "The team was built behind him."
While Rohr mulls changing his formation, Iceland has shown that it is flexible too, often going to a five-man midfield and a lone striker, a formation that allows the team to counterattack more swiftly.
"We are more unpredictable now, and hopefully we'll show that in the competition," said Alfred Finnbogason, who scored Iceland's goal against Argentina.
Coming on top of Iceland's shock 2-1 victory over England in the round of 16 at the 2016 European Championship, Finnbogason is unquestionably right when he talks about the country experiencing its "best moments" in soccer.
But like everyone at the World Cup, it's about focusing on the here and now.