Are Nigeria’s Super Eagles up to something?
When English referee Michael Oliver blew the full-time whistle to bring the game between Poland and Nigeria to a close on Friday night, the Super Eagles won a second successive friendly against a World Cup-bound team. In so doing the Nigerians, ranked 52nd in the world by FIFA, had beaten two teams ranked in the top six.
The Eagles beat Argentina 4-2 in Krasnodar in November. It seemed like a fluke given Nigeria had only ever defeated La Albiceleste once before. Both were friendlies and Lionel Messi didn't play in the 2011 4-1 defeat in Abuja. When Argentina arranged a rematch to set the record straight, they won 3-1 with Messi in the team. It seemed like a warning to never try that again.
Nigeria has met Argentina five times in competitive matches. The two played a goalless draw in the 1995 Confederations Cup. Nigeria has lost all four World Cup matches. Messi personally saw to it that record was kept intact in Brazil. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner scored twice. Marcus Rojo finished the job to deny the Eagles an unlikely draw after Nigeria had come back twice through Ahmed Musa.
Nigeria’s recent friendly win against Argentina was therefore dismissed by many as a one-off. More recent events seem to suggest otherwise.
Argentina beat Italy 2-0 on Friday without Messi. It was a match that featured Gianluigi Buffon in goal. Gigi had made a U-turn on his retirement decision after the Azzurri spectacularly failed to make it to Russia. Argentina did not look in any way threatened by the Italians at the Etihad stadium in Manchester. Goals from Ever Banega and Manuel Lanzini settled the tie. It was a deserved win on a night Sergio Aguero did not get a chance to play in front of his club fans due to injury.
The result suggests Messi's absence is no excuse for Argentina’s loss against Nigeria. Rather, the Argentines lost to a better team in the second half of that match. Credit must go to the Nigerians who had to come back from 2-0 down to beat the former world champions. It demonstrated character and determination, traits needed to win tournaments and grind out results in hostile environments.
Friday’s 1-0 win over Poland took place in Wroclaw with Robert Lewandowski on show. Gernot Rohr's squad gave a good account of itself. Poland only just dominated possession, 56:44%. All other statistical categories save shots on target were nearly even and Nigeria had an answer in goal for Robert Lewandowski: 19-year-old Francis Uzoho. The Deportivo de la Coruna keeper made six saves on the night. On the one occasion the youngster needed help Leon Balogun was there to clear the ball off the line. Victor Moses’ strike from the penalty spot in the 61st minute gave the Nigerians the win.
Don't forget the Super Eagles emerged from a difficult CAF qualifying group undefeated to earn a place in Russia. The team had the better of reigning African champions Cameroon, the highest ranking African side, Algeria, and 2012 African champions Zambia. Cameroon suffered its biggest loss to Nigeria in the process, a 4-0 defeat in Uyo. Gernot Rohr's senior team is on a five-match unbeaten run that includes the World Cup qualifying and the victory in Poland but not the CHAN tournament that features only African-based players.
While it can be argued the victory over Argentina was a year ago, when the South American side was struggling in CONMEBOL qualifying, Poland were fresh off winning their UEFA group to qualify for Russia. Lewandowski scored 16 times in 10 matches, most in the entire qualifying process.
Argentina already knows it must take Nigeria seriously. Iceland and Croatia, also in Group D with the Super Eagles, had best do their homework. There is something about this team that speaks of greatness. It may not win the trophy in Russia but with the youngest team in the tournament, great things can be expected in the future.