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Lionel Messi tangles with Ogenyi Onazi at the 2014 World Cup

#FifaDraw 2018: Nigeria renew acquaintances with Argentina

Nigeria will play Argentina for the fifth time in the World Cup group stages at the Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg on 26 June 2018.  The draw for the finals in Russia was made this afternoon at the Kremlin in Moscow and also sees Croatia and Iceland, qualifying for the first time, as Nigeria’s other Group D opponents.

 

Nigeria’s previous encounters with Argentina all ended in defeats for the West Africans.  In 1994, Diego Maradona inspired Argentina to a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, who were arriving for the first time at the world stage.  Their next encounter was a 1-0 defeat for Nigeria courtesy of a Gabriel Batistuta header in 2002.  In 2010, defender Gabriel Heinze’s headed goal was enough to seal victory for Argentina.  The last World Cup in 2014 was another group stage win for Argentina with Lionel Messi’s two goals and one from Marcos Rojo, cancelling out a double from Ahmed Musa.

Despite this string of victories, Argentina may not want to play Nigeria this time.  Earlier this month, Nigeria beat the South Americans, without Messi, 4-2 in a friendly at the Krasnodar Stadium in Russia.  Qualification for the World Cup was a struggle for Argentina and they needed a hat-trick from their talisman from Barcelona to book a ticket to Russia in their final game against Ecuador.  By contrast, Nigeria secured qualification with a match to spare.

Both teams have the advantage of their clash in Russia being the last round of matches in Group D.  By then it would be most likely that qualification or elimination would have been secured.  Argentina’s opening game is against Iceland in the afternoon of 16 June, while Nigeria kick off in the evening against Croatia.

Ronaldinho, Clarence Seedorf, Jay-Jay Okocha, Lothar Matthaus, Nwankwo Kanu and others at the draw

The Croats have one of the best midfielders in the world, Luka Modric, a serial winner with Real Madrid, supported by Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, while Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic has the work-rate and aerial prowess to keep Nigeria’s central defenders William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun on their toes all game.  This game should determine Nigeria’s World Cup prospects.  Lose and first round elimination would be all but guaranteed.  But Croatia could be there for the taking as they are unlikely to have started clicking in the first match.  World Cup opening matches are usually full of surprises for the favourites, assuming Croatia could be seen as such in this encounter.

Iceland beat England at Euro 2016

One thing is sure about Iceland, Nigeria’s next opponents on 22 June: They will be no pushovers for anyone in this group.  They proved it by topping their World Cup European qualifying group and knocking England out of the last 16 of Euro 2016.  They are very solid unit and would have done their homework on Nigeria.  Their most gifted player, Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, hasn’t had the best of seasons since leaving Swansea for Merseyside.  Nigeria should be wary of Iceland, even if they are the smallest country in terms of population to qualify for the World Cup.  Nigeria tends to struggle against the organisation of Scandinavian countries at the World Cup, losing 4-1 to Denmark in 1998 and 2-1 to Sweden in 2002.  Iceland will fight for every ball and Nigeria better be ready for such a game.

Alex Iwobi against Argentina in a friendly this month: Nigeria’s not so secret weapon?

There are clearly no easy games in this group and it comes closest to being a “Group of Death”.  But Nigeria has survived tougher groups in the past and should be quietly confident about progressing to the next round.  To do so would need the likes of Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi and veteran Mikel Obi firing on all cylinders.  Iwobi has already shown what he can do with two goals in the friendly against Argentina.  The 21 year old Arsenal midfielder may just come of age at the biggest stage of all.

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