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May 29, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Nigeria

Group F | Argentina | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Iran


Team DNA

Ask most Nigerian football insiders, and they will most certainly trace the Super Eagles' decline to the abandonment of wing play. And it will not be for a lack of evidence.

Nigeria's periods of success have been built on the backs of great wingers -- Adokiye Amiesimaka and Segun Odegbami marauded their way past opposition full backs to the 1980 African Nations Cup title. Fourteen years later, Emmanuel Amuneke and Finidi George took it up a notch, enchanting Africa, and the world, with their mesmerizing hugging of the touchline.

It is that style, albeit with a different formation, that manager Stephen Keshi has tried to bring back. He preaches possession, passing and movement. His teams will build up deliberately, patiently, but with the clear and present danger of his wide forwards/wingers racing upfield in a microsecond.

This is why the speed of Ahmed Musa and the guile of Victor Moses are so important to Keshi's philosophy.

Starting scenarios

History

After reaching the round of 16 in their first two World Cup appearances in 1994 and 1998, Nigeria have failed to advance past group play in their past two trips (2002 and 2010).

How they reached Brazil

For the first time in what appears to be ages, Nigeria qualified for the World Cup with relatively little trouble. Kenya and Namibia threatened fleetingly, but failed to sustain their challenges. The Super Eagles looked in danger only once -- when Kenya visited in their first match after Nigeria made a triumphant return from capturing the 2013 African Nations Cup.

The Harambee Stars were seconds away from claiming a seismic road victory at Nigeria's U.J. Esuene Stadium, until Nnamdi Oduamadi struck with virtually the last kick to rescue the Eagles.

From then on, it was smooth sailing. Victory at Kenya in the reverse fixture was followed by a draw and comfortable 2-0 home win against Namibia to seal progress to the playoffs. There, the draw pitted the Super Eagles against Ethiopia, the lowest-ranked team out of all the group winners.

A 2-1 win in the first leg all but guaranteed qualification, and Emmanuel Emenike's starring performance in the second leg was the finishing touch on a satisfying qualifying run.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

The first order of business at the World Cup is to get to the knockout stage. To do so, a victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina is virtually non-negotiable. They may be Cup first-timers, but the Bosnians pack quite a punch, with Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic leading the way.

Argentina will also be in Nigeria's path. In three of the four past appearances between the two countries, Nigeria have fallen to the South Americans by the odd goal. Nothing would be sweeter than to claim revenge and secure group leadership in the process.

Elsewhere, if Greece get through, the Nigerians will like nothing better than to settle some unfinished business from 2010. The Super Eagles looked in control of the game that would have all but seen them through, but Sani Kaita kicked out at Vasilis Torosidis and saw an instant red card. Nigeria went on to lose the match 2-1, signaling the beginning of Nigeria's woes as their fragile confidence cracked.

Most important player

Emenike is the main source of goals and Obi Mikel is the main provider, but two other players provide the platform for them.

In midfield, Ogenyi Onazi's uncompromising, bulldog-style tackling ensures Mikel is free to roam everywhere he pleases. The Lazio man is happy enough to play bodyguard and packs the limitless energy of an Energizer Bunny.

Further back, there is little more that can be said of goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. In three World Cup appearances, he has been the difference, especially against Argentina. He made a name for himself during his international debut at the 2002 World Cup after a stunning flying save to deny Paul Scholes in group play. In 2010, Lionel Messi said Enyeama was "phenomenal" after the Nigerian held Argentina to just one goal in their group-stage match.

This season, Enyeama has been one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, racking up a record-tying 11 clean sheets at one point in the French Ligue 1.

Emenike remains a key component, though, as his goals will be just as important as Enyeama's saves. The recall of Osaze Odemwingie should prove a welcome relief if there is a need to back up Emenike.

Definition of success

While expectations are generally muted, there is belief that this team can go further than their predecessors.

Iran are seen as very beatable, and nothing less than a victory will be allowed back home. Bosnia-Herzegovina will provide sterner scrutiny, but again, most consider the game winnable despite the presence of Dzeko. These two potential victories will be key to lessen the pressure of the final group game against Argentina.

- Video: Nigeria odds in World Cup (Australia only)

Second-round qualification will be seen as an OK performance; a spot in the quarterfinals will be an achievement. Reaching the semifinals? That would be a cue for legendary status.

How far will Nigeria go?

The quarterfinals. Anything beyond that will be a bonus.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Shaka Hislop

Nigeria are a team that have relied on star players in the past, but Keshi has done the exact opposite this time around. After last year's chaos in the Confederations Cup, when players arrived late in protest after they didn't receive bonuses, Keshi has tried to foster team spirit. And he has sent a message to his players over the past year: If you want to be part of this team, you have to buy into our ethic. And the players have responded.

This won't be the Super Eagles we remember from 15 or 20 years ago, when their football was very fast and entertaining. Keshi has focused on building this team from the back. I worry that if things again don't go well at the start, they won't have any obvious leader to rally around.

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