Ahmed Musa double inspires Nigeria and gives Lionel Messi, Argentina hope
VOLGOGRAD, Russia -- Three quick thoughts on Nigeria 2-0 Iceland in Group D at the World Cup on Friday afternoon.
1. Nigeria's important win sets up tantalising finale in Group D
Iceland have long tormented opponents with their ability to hit teams on the break, as well as excel at set pieces. The fact that restarts had long been a weakness for Nigeria made the Group D match look as if it was tilted slightly in Iceland's favour. But not only did Nigeria clean up their defensive frailties but they scored two superb counterattacking goals through Ahmed Musa.
Nigeria started the match in a more aggressive fashion compared to their 2-0 defeat to Croatia. After an early Iceland flurry in which Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho pushed away Gylfi Sigurdsson's third-minute free kick, Nigeria were soon pressing Iceland in their own half. Iceland adapted, looking to get behind Nigeria wing-backs Victor Moses and Bryan Idowu.
A stalemate ensued, with neither side able to create much in the way of clear-cut chances. But by the end of the half, Iceland were beginning to make their presence felt, especially down the right wing, where Birkir Saevarsson had several threatening crosses into the box that just missed their intended target. Set pieces were threatening for Iceland, as well, and Sigurdsson nearly found Alfred Finnbogason late in the first half, but the Iceland forward was unable to get his shot on target.
The second half started with Nigeria finally getting a shot off, though Oghenekaro Etebo's effort was easily saved. But the Super Eagles soon found the vital breakthrough in the 49th minute with their very next attack. Ironically, it started with an Iceland throw-in that was cleared to Musa, who kept the play alive with a header to Kelechi Iheanacho. The break was now on with Iheanacho feeding Moses on the right wing. Musa's superb first touch allowed him to control Moses' cross, and he smashed his shot past Hannes Halldorsson to put the Super Eagles 1-0 up.
From then on, Nigeria created the better chances, with Wilfred Ndidi going close in the 57th minute, only to see Halldorsson push his shot over the bar. Leon Balogun nearly added to his side's advantage in the 73rd minute, but his header went narrowly over, and Musa later hit the bar.
Nigeria remained in control and always looked more likely to score. So it proved as Musa added a second in the 75th minute. He collected a long ball out of the back, outpaced Iceland defender Kari Arnason, then rounded Halldorsson before putting the ball in the back of the net.
Iceland misery was made complete in the 82nd minute. A VAR-assisted penalty was awarded when Tyronne Ebuehi bowled Finnbogason over in the box, but Sigurdsson could only hit the resulting spot kick over the bar. Despite throwing everything into attack, Iceland couldn't break through the Super Eagles' defence.
Nigeria now find themselves in the unenviable position of controlling their own destiny heading into the last round of the group. A win over Argentina will be enough for the Super Eagles to secure passage into the second round. They will need to be wary of the Albiceleste, however, who still remain alive despite two games of struggle. That said, the Super Eagles will have to like their chances given their performance here.
2. Musa a man to fear
The Super Eagles were keen to make amends for a tepid performance in their 2-0 loss to Croatia. To that end, manager Gernot Rohr went with a three-man back line and two strikers in Musa and Iheanacho. Overall, the switches paid off enormously for Nigeria, with a more aggressive attitude paying off, as well.
The Super Eagles bossed possession to the tune of 64.1 percent in the first half, and Rohr had to be pleased with the way his side was controlling the match and getting into the attacking third. The only problem was that there was no end product to speak of, as the Super Eagles failed to record a single shot, never mind one that was on target. Granted, some of that is down to the style of their opponents, but getting clean looks at goal remained a problem.
That all changed in the second half, with Musa proving to be the difference-maker Nigerians have been looking for.
It must be said, Rohr's changes had an impact on the defensive end, as well. The third centre-back in the form of Kenneth Omeruo gave Nigeria more height and steel when it came to defending set pieces. Sure, there were a few anxious moments on some crosses, but overall Nigeria looked more assured in defence, even with the late penalty, and they now have a clear idea of their approach going forward.
The biggest change of all was the addition of Musa. Limited to a substitute's role in the opening match, the Leicester forward, who spent the second half of the season on loan at CSKA Moscow, made the most of his chance with two sublime goals. The performance marked the second two-goal outing for Musa in a World Cup match, as he hit Argentina for two back in 2014. A repeat performance in four days' time likely would propel the Super Eagles into the knockout round.
3. Iceland hopes on a knife edge
Iceland have been hailed for knowing what they're good at and where they struggle. That self-awareness has been the foundation of their success, but the reality is that their methods have their limits. There are no secrets in terms of their tactical approach, and against a team like Nigeria that is their athletic equal --or even superior in terms of speed -- there will be days when a lack of variety in attack can be their undoing. That proved to be the case here.
Now Iceland face an uphill task to reach their goal of making it to the knockout round, as they are still alive, albeit barely. A win over a Croatia side that has already reached the next stage -- and might be inclined to rest players -- might be enough to progress, though the result of the Argentina vs. Nigeria match will have a huge say.
If Argentina prevail, goal difference will likely come into play. As things stand right now, Iceland have the advantage over Argentina, but suffice to say, the final day of games likely will have plenty of twists and turns.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.