A talented attacking side featuring several names recognisable to Fantasy Premier League managers, Nigeria will be hopeful of progressing beyond the round of 16 for the first time in this their sixth World Cup appearance.
The Super Eagles will face Argentina in the group stage for the fifth time and will be buoyed by their 4-2 international friendly win over Jorge Sampaoli’s side in November 2017.
Nigeria’s opening Group D fixture is against Croatia in Kaliningrad on Saturday 16 June, with Iceland to follow in Volgograd six days later. Their old foes, Argentina, are last up in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday 26 June.
Road to Qualification
Nigeria was the first African country to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and might have boasted an unbeaten record, had FIFA not retrospectively awarded their final opponents Algeria a 3-0 win as a result of the Super Eagles fielding an ineligible player.
Swaziland, then ranked 138th in the world, were Nigeria’s first obstacle to World Cup qualification in the two-legged second round.
After a goalless draw in Lobamba, Nigeria had to wait until the 51st minute of their home tie to breach the Swaziland defence: a Moses Simon free-kick breaking the deadlock before Efe Ambrose sealed a 2-0 aggregate win late on.
Nigeria’s third round group looked like the toughest in CAF qualification, with top seeds Algeria the highest-ranked African nation in the world at that point.
The Super Eagles, having recently appointed current coach Gernot Rohr, made light of their difficult draw with victories in their first three fixtures: a 2-1 win in Zambia was followed by 3-1 and 4-0 home successes over Algeria and Cameroon respectively.
A 1-1 draw against Cameroon in Yaounde briefly halted Nigeria’s procession through the group, before Rohr’s side saw off nearest challengers Zambia 1-0 in their penultimate match to book their ticket to Russia.
A dead rubber with Algeria ended 1-1, though FIFA’s intervention and the subsequent retroactive 3-0 defeat somewhat spoiled Nigeria’s otherwise impressive qualifying record.
Only DR Congo (14) scored more third-round qualifying goals than Nigeria (11), and while no African side who qualified for the 2018 World Cup conceded more than the Super Eagles, it should be noted that three of the six strikes in their goals against column came in that “defeat” to Algeria.
Rohr consistently favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation in qualifying, though has experimented with a 3-5-2 in subsequent friendlies: Nigeria defeated Argentina with this set-up in November and looked more cohesive after switching to this shape in the 2-1 loss to England at Wembley on 2 June.
Most starts: Ogenyi Onazi (7), Shehu Abdullahi, Elderson Echiejile, John Obi Mikel, William Troost-Ekong (6), Leon Balogun, Wilfred Ndidi, Odion Ighalo (5), Victor Moses, Ikechukwu Ezenwa (4), Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi (3)
Most goals: Victor Moses (3), John Obi Mikel, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi (2)
Most assists: Ogenyi Onazi, Shehu Abdullahi, John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa, Odion Ighalo, Victor Moses, Oghenekaro Etebo (1)
International friendly victories over Argentina and Poland have been followed by defeats to Serbia and England, with DR Congo holding the Super Eagles to a 1-1 draw five days before the trip to Wembley.
The Key Targets
Usually deployed as a wing-back by Chelsea, Victor Moses (£5.8m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is afforded more attacking freedom as a winger in Rohr’s usual 4-2-3-1, though could once again find himself in a more withdrawn role if his coach decides to proceed with a three-man central defence.
Moses top-scored for Nigeria in qualification with three goals and is usefully listed as a defender by Fantasy iTeam, meaning that any attacking returns would be all the greater for Fantasy managers. There is no such luck for players of McDonald’s FIFA: Moses is classified as a forward on this game.
The former Crystal Palace and Wigan Athletic star may also be on spot-kick duties, having scored a penalty in Nigeria’s 1-0 win over Poland in March.
Stationed on the opposite flank in a 4-2-3-1 or playing as an offensive central midfielder/striker in a 3-5-2, Alex Iwobi (£6.2m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is Nigeria’s form player in attack. The Arsenal youngster grabbed his country’s consolation in the 2-1 defeat to England and scored twice while playing up front alongside Kelechi Iheanacho (£6.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) in Nigeria’s impressive 4-2 win over Argentina last November.
An upcoming friendly against the Czech Republic should provide some clues as to how Iwobi and Moses will be ultimately deployed in the World Cup, with Nigeria’s second group match against Iceland (who conceded three goals at home to Norway last weekend) perhaps the fixture that Fantasy managers should particularly consider these two Premier League-based assets.
Like Iwobi, Iheanacho only started three of Nigeria’s eight qualification fixtures but scored once (a spectacular free-kick) and claimed two assists in that encounter with the Argentineans.
The Leicester City forward could find himself playing just off Odion Ighalo (£6.2m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), the former Watford striker who started the match at Wembley as Nigeria’s sole target-man. Ighalo scored on only one occasion in qualification, however, and hasn’t been on the scoresheet since his goal in the 1-0 win over Cameroon last September.
The Long Shots
No Nigerian midfielder is cheaper on Fantasy iTeam than John Obi Mikel (£5.4m), who has featured as an attacking midfielder in both a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-5-2 during qualification and in Nigeria’s recent friendlies.
With only four league goals in his 14-year professional career, Mikel would appear to be an unlikely source of attacking returns, but the former Chelsea midfielder scored twice and claimed one assist in six qualification appearances.
Rohr may decide to play with three central midfielders in tough fixtures against Croatia and Argentina, meaning that Mikel could once again benefit from being the most advanced player in that midfield trio. Mikel is priced up at £6.5m on McDonald’s FIFA.
Moses apart, Nigeria’s defenders would appear to offer Fantasy managers little in either defensive solidity or attacking threat. Bryan Idowu (£5.4m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is a relative newcomer to the national team, having not featured at all during qualification. The left-back spot appears to be his to lose, however, with Idowu having made four appearances in Nigeria’s friendlies since November.
Should Rohr adopt a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation as he did in the Super Eagles’ 4-2 win over Nigeria, then Idowu could be set for a more advanced role further up the left flank. Idowu indeed scored from that position in his country’s previous meeting with Argentina.
June 6: Czech Republic (n)
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