22 June 2018
Only the most die-hard of Nigeria fans saw this coming after their team’s 2-0 capitulation to Croatia in their World Cup Group D opener. But two brilliant second half goals from speedster Ahmed Musa against Iceland breathed life into Nigeria’s World Cup campaign.
It was 32 degrees heat this afternoon in Volgograd and this must have been to the advantage of the West Africans, but they started the game apprehensively and didn’t threaten the Iceland goal in the entire first half. Ivorian legend Didier Drogba complained before the game that Nigeria lacked creativity against Croatia and they continued along the same lines in the first half.
Coach Gernot Rohr had made changes after the first match, dropping Alex Iwobi, Shehu Abdullahi and Odion Ighalo. He also went for a 3-5-2 formation with Victor Moses dropping to his Chelsea position at right wingback, and Kenneth Omeruo coming in to form a three at the back with William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun. Upfront Musa offered genuine pace alongside Kelechi Iheanacho. In the end, it proved to be inspired changes.
Watch the highlights below:
But it didn’t look like it at the start. While Nigeria coped better with Iceland’s set-pieces, they didn’t offer anything in the final third. There was no penetration and the passing was very poor. Musa’s pace was hardly being used and when Nigeria broke down the flanks, the kept pumping high balls into the Iceland box and this was meat and drink for the defenders.
Nigeria’s goalie, the rookie Francis Uzoho had to make a splendid save from a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick after just two minutes. Uzoho looked assured using his height to great advantage at corners. However, Nigeria didn’t show any threat from their own set-pieces and didn’t vary it by going short despite Iceland’s aerial advantage.
On the break, Iceland started seeing a different Nigeria – the type of Nigeria that made big waves in the mid to late 1990s. Tyrone Ebuehi had come in as left wingback in place of Brian Idowu and with Moses on the other side, started stretching play.
After 48 minutes, an Iceland throw was headed clear by Omeruo in the Nigerian box, Musa nodded on and Iheanacho helped the ball on to Moses down the right. As the Iceland defence parted like the Red Sea, Moses raced on to find Musa, who followed up play, with a pin-point cross and the latter controlled the ball on the half volley to fire home the opener. It was Nigeria’s second shot on target but their swagger was back big style.
Holding midfielder Wilfred Ndidi then hit a long range effort that was tipped over by goalie Hannes Halldorsson after 56 minutes. By now Moses was growing in influence in the game. His cross in the 69th minute created a chance for Troost-Ekong, whose header went narrowly wide. His defensive partner Balogun also came close from an Iheanacho corner after 71 minutes.
Musa was now in the mood and could have doubled his tally 20 minutes to the end with a rasping drive that cannoned off the crossbar. But he and Nigeria were not to be denied. Three minutes later, a long ball out of Nigeria’s defence by Omeruo and down the channels saw Musa with the Iceland defence on the back foot as they chased an equaliser. His pace took him past a couple of defenders and he rounded the keeper to blast in the second goal.
Nigeria were coasting by this time, but a rush of blood from Ebuehi nearly let Iceland back into the game when he conceded a very unnecessary penalty with nine minutes to go. The ref initially didn’t see the foul, but VAR confirmed that Ebuehi tripped the attacker that he should have shepherded away from goal. But it wasn’t the comeback Icelanders were looking for as Sigurdsson sent his spot-kick into the stands after sending Uzoho the wrong way.
Nigeria showed professionalism by managing the game in the dying minutes as Ighalo came on for Iheanacho after 85 minutes and Omeruo just grew in stature as a commanding presence in the centre of defence. Iwobi replaced Oghenekaro Etebo in added time. Etebo was immense and could get better when he learns when to play it simple and release the ball early.
Nigerians rightly slaughtered coach Rohr following the weak display in the first game. He should get some credit for the changes that resulted in this victory. They now live to fight another day against Argentina in St Petersburg next Tuesday. If they play like they did in the second half of today’s encounter, they should have the measure of a disjointed, disorientated and demoralised Argentina that are still smarting from a 3-0 humiliation against Croatia in Group’s D other game last night.
For now, Nigeria deserves to celebrate this victory. Sub Iwobi was mighty pleased and tweeted after the match:
— Alexander Iwobi (@alexiwobi) June 22, 2018
It had looked like the Icemen cometh to deal Nigeria the final death blow in the World Cup. But it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the Musa to melt the Icemen in the heat of Volgograd.