COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Having seen Croatia blow Argentina away 3-0 the previous night, Nigeria and Iceland locked horns at the Volgograd Arena knowing full well a positive result for either would see them move one step closer to securing passage into the Round of 16. The Northern Europeans had impressed in their opening game with a resolute approach against the Albiceleste seeing them play out to a 1-1 draw against Jorge Sampaoli’s charges.
Perhaps feeling his side had a better chance against the Super Eagles; Heimir Hallgrimson opted for a 4-4-2 as opposed to the 4-4-1-1 that was utilized in their group opener. It saw Gylfi Sigurdsson drop into central midfield to accommodate the introduction of another striker – Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – who was to partner the in-form Alfred Finnbogason (who had scored in three successive games) in attack.
Gernot Rohr, on the other hand, made several changes to the side that meekly surrendered to the Croats a few days earlier. Knowing a defeat would knock the three-time African champions out; the German tactician opted for a 3-5-2 which in turn saw Abdullahi Shehu, Alex Iwobi and Odion Ighalo for Kenneth Omeruo, Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho respectively.
The opening exchanges were cagey, to say the least, with Iceland slightly edging it. Sigurdsson drew a couple of routine saves from Francis Uzoho in the opening quarter of the game but the game struggled to get going from there.
While the Super Eagles had more of the ball in the opening half, they struggled to find any rhythm to their play and that probably resulted in a disappointing half that saw them fail to hit any attempt at Hannes Halldorsson’s goal. The part-time filmmaker was nothing but a spectator while opposing number Uzoho had faced half-a-dozen of efforts at his goal.
Hallgrimson’s side upped the ante close to the break and had a couple of dangerous moments from set-pieces, but it ended goalless after 45 minutes.
You got the sense that Our Boys were comfortable ceding possession to the West Africans and something had to change for the African side who, it has to be said, weren’t playing like a nation going out without putting up a fight.
Rohr had seen his side come alive after the break in recent games, so he’d have hoped to stir some sort of reaction with his team talk.
Whatever the gaffer said to his side at the break seemed to motivate them as Nigeria looked a different side after the restart. Oghenekaro Etebo had the Eagles’ first effort within a minute of the referee’s whistle and it signalled one thing – intent – which was to tell a few minutes later.
From an Iceland long throw, Omeruo relieved the pressure with a header and the ball dropped to Iheanacho who released Victor Moses down the right flank. Having sprinted into space, the wing-back sent the ball into the box and Musa controlled superbly before firing past Halldorsson with aplomb. The Africans were delirious and Rohr would have been pleased as, yet again, his charges seemed to have responded to his half-time tonic. The goal moments after the restart had sent Nigeria from the foot of the table into second-place, but they still needed to stay switched on in anticipation of expected response from Hallgrimson’s side.
Iceland, predictably, were more flexible after falling behind and that played right into the hands of their African opponents who could now play on the break and give Our Boys a real taste of their own medicine.
Wilfred Ndidi stung the palm of Halldorsson with a long-range effort and Leon Balogun went close with a header a few minutes later. Musa then hit the crossbar with a curled effort from the edge of the box as the game went into the last quarter… the Nigerians were getting closer. The Leicester City man wasn’t to be denied; however, barely a minute later, he collected a long ball from Omeruo sent into the channel, left the exposed Kari Arnason for dead before keeping his composure to send the Eagles 2-0 up. It was Musa’s second World Cup brace – following his double against Argentina in 2014 – and the West Africans were ecstatic!
They were now set to move into second spot! But they still had to endure a nervy moment in the final 10 minutes first as referee Matthew Conger awarded a penalty to Iceland after getting help from a video replay following Ebuehi’s clumsy foul on Finnbogason. Sigurdsson missed the resulting spot-kick and that epitomized their display over the course of the game which wasn’t good enough. The game petered out after that and Nigeria will be delighted with their amazing performance after the break that saw them surge to second spot in Group D.
Rohr’s side have three points going into the final game and they now head into the final round of games against a poor Argentina – who have a point – knowing they need to avoid defeat against the South Americans and hope Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia do them a favour by avoiding a three-goal defeat against Iceland if they are to progress.
The gauntlet was thrown down to the Nigerians following Croatia’s defeat of Argentina and having disappointed in the opening half, they responded amazingly after the break to secure a huge result which puts them firmly in control of their destiny!