Ahead of the make-or-break tie against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday, we a look at some reasons to expect a favourable outcome.
By Solace Chukwu
If you witnessed the sub-par showing of the Super Eagles on Monday, the title of this article might appear utterly incongruous.
"What optimism could possibly be gleaned from such a performance?" you might ask. Well, this is me: the ‘Big Picture’ guy.
The heat of the moment has dissipated, so let’s logically assess the situation of Stephen Keshi’s group ahead of Saturday’s game against Bosnia in five quick points.
It's still all in their hands
To begin with, unsavoury as it was, the draw really had no fatal effect on Nigeria’s chances of progressing. Barring occurrences bordering on supernatural, a win against the Dragons will see Keshi’s team through to the next round. Such a straightforward path makes the collective moaning and recriminations that trailed Monday’s game seem almost myopic in retrospect.
You could almost argue that this ensures the sort of keen focus that brings success, as there is almost no margin for error. Victory against Iran may have permitted a draw in Cuiaba against Bosnia, but as it stands only a win will do. This ought to serve as added motivation to the players. Nigeria’s national team is famed for its (somewhat apocryphal) ability to produce results when the chips are down, so keep calm and get behind the Eagles.
A more open game in the offing
Midfield lynchpin John Obi Mikel was quick to criticise Iran’s unambitious play in that group opener, a claim which seems unduly harsh, and demonstrates the considerable influence of his mentor, Jose Mourinho.
You do not criticise a team for playing in their default manner. That statement perhaps confirmed definitively that Keshi was not being coy when he claimed to know nothing of the Iranians. More to the point though, it is not an accusation that can be levelled at Bosnia.
The Dragons are a truly adventurous side, top-heavy if anything. The introduction of Muhamed Besic has brought muscle to the centre of midfield, but the team is still somewhat suspect in defence. Captain Emir Spahic is an all-action, heart-on-the-sleeve player, but can be quite rash, while partner Ermin Bicakcic is not the quickest in the world.
With a side less defensive than Iran, the Super Eagles will surely find gaps to exploit. This is further accentuated by the fact that Bosnia have no points on the board yet, meaning the onus will be on them to chase the game. The question remains: will Keshi's men have the wherewithal to exploit the spaces that will likely appear?
We know what to expect from Bosnia
It was pretty disturbing to hear Keshi state that he was going into the Iran game not knowing what to expect. Such complacency would be somewhat understandable for teams of greater might, and even they would not dare take that risk.
It reflected on the pitch, too. The Super Eagles stumbled and made heavy work of a game many expected them to win. Considering this was an opener, and the easiest game in the group on paper, surely much of Keshi’s World Cup preparation should have centred on breaking down the sort of rigid defensive system that Iran are known to employ.
This time around, the Big Boss and his technical crew will surely be more aware of what is coming at them in the shape of Bosnia. The system Bosnia employs should be properly mastered and a coherent strategy divined. Surely, pace and power is the way to go against this Bosnia team, preferably employed in a medium block. The team may have other ideas, but it is vital that the Super Eagles do not go in blind.
Bosnia still have question marks in key areas
Zmajevi went through qualifying with question marks in midfield and at left-back. The former concern was remedied with the introduction of Muhamed Besic (pictured), the latter with the talented Sead Kolasinac.
However, the performances of the aforementioned Bicakcic in the heart of defence have led to insinuations that he could be dropped, with Kolasinac drafted in from the left. This would mean that Sejad Salihovic, who never truly convinced in the position during qualifying, could start at left-back. The Hoffenheim captain is more comfortable in the centre of midfield, and may struggle with pace.
Further afield, veteran Zvjezdan Misimovic’s place is under threat.
‘Miske’ is technically superb, but was never the fittest of footballers, even less so now at 32. His axing may see Miralem Pjanic move forward into the number ten role, with Haris Medunjanin coming into the side. However, it remains to be seen how much this reshuffling will affect Bosnia, who were quite impressive against Argentina.
The Super Eagles are slow starters under Keshi
We’ve seen this already at the three major competitions The Big Boss has helmed: a slow start, followed by steady improvement. This was the story of the Cup of Nations triumph in 2013 and the Championship of African Nations in January this year. Even in last year’s Confederations Cup, the team awoke from a sleepy performance against Tahiti in the opener to match the South American champions Uruguay stride for stride in an unfortunate losing effort. The fact that performances improve means that Keshi is always willing to learn and improve upon his side’s performances.
He who is down need fear no fall, they say. Well, if the antecedents are anything to go by, the storm may be about to break. In this battle of flying creatures, the phoenix-like abilities of Stephen Keshi’s Eagles are set to come to the fore once more.