Final ready to surpass epic of 1996
When Argentina and Nigeria file out to contend for gold at this year's Olympic games on Saturday, there will be revenge on the mind of both nations; especially the current crop of Nigerian players who lost to Argentina in 2005.
Three years ago, coached by Samson Siasia, Nigeria believed it was robbed by a dubious dive from the Argentine whiz Lionel Messi, during the U-20 World Cup finals, at the Galgenwaard Stadium in Utrecht. Now a lot smarter and more mature, the Nigerian camp thinks the South Americans are in for a treat.
With emotions high on both sides, this should be a great final and one that is similar to the last time both countries met at the Olympic finals, in 1996.
The prospect of watching a West African nation filled with flair and dexterity squaring up against one of South America's finest, is a mouth watering proposition.
Touted as the second best African team in the Olympics, behind Ivory Coast, Nigeria's self proclaimed 'Dream Team' dismantled their fellow West Africans, as they dominated their quarter-finals match. They didn't stop there and outclassed a Belgian side that looked lost for most of the first half, failing to construct an attack worthy of note in the semis.
Critics kept questioning if Nigeria could constantly repeat their performances throughout the competition. But, at the moment, the 'Dream Team IV' has yet to disappoint. Even if the Super Eagles have played the best football in China, they have yet to accomplish the goal they set for themselves; to win gold.
To do that, they will have to contend with a strong Argentine side and their fans who remember very well the events of 1996.
The entire Argentina side remembers losing a gold medal they believed was in their grasp at the Centennial Games in Atlanta. Perhaps the best display in Olympic football history, the original Dream Team (football's version) came back and snatched gold, as an offside trap set by Argentina was broken by a winning goal from Nigerian winger Emmanuel Amunike. Even with a backline that paraded Jose Chamot, Roberto Sensini along with Matia Almeyda amongst others, Nigeria still scored three goals.
Today, Argentina's current group of stars have to watch out for a different Nigeria compared to their last encounter in 2005. A lot more patient, disciplined and organized, outsiders are surprised at qualities not usually associated with most African teams. The Eagles' uncharacteristic style might prove an issue for Argentina, hence the need to play with caution if they hope to repeat their 2004 success.
However it is difficult to hide Argentina's major weakness - their exposed backline. For a group that has only conceded two goals the entire competition, Argentina's defenders have not faced an attack this skilled, fast and stacked with enormous pace, since they played Ivory Coast. The Ivorians, through Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, exposed the Argentines at the back and Siasia's tactic should be able to take advantage of that also.
With speedy forwards, Osaze Peter Odemwingie, Victor Obinna Nsofor and crafty players like Solomon Okoronkwo and Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi, Argentina's defenders will have to defend deep all game to cope with the Nigerians' pace.
In the midfield, the combination of Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Mascherano is a tough test for the Nigerians, but with youth and form on their side, they have the ability to contain them in the middle of the pitch.
The main focus in this game will be Argentina's attack. Only one name sends shivers down the spine of Siasia, and that is Messi. The genius will have his hands full as the bulkier, taller and more physical Nigerian defenders must exercise patience with the Barcelona star.
With Messi up front with the likes of Angel Di Maria and Sergio 'Kun' Aguero, can Onyekachi Apam, Dele Adeleye, Sani Kaita or Nigeria's wingbacks contend with them. The problem for Nigeria won't be playing to instructions, but it might be containing their emotions and staying away from making silly mistakes. A free kick anywhere close to goal might be too much for goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin to handle. The erratic Nigerian goalkeeper has been fantastic in the last two games, but everyone still recalls his mistakes against Japan and also USA.
Regardless of who wins gold, you cannot ask for a better final pairing; filled with the big names, flair and a dose of dexterity. Nigeria are after bragging rights in Africa, just as Argentina wants to repeat their Olympic success, but most fans are just thinking revenge on both sides of the equation.
• Sulaiman Folarin is a columnist for ESPNsoccernet and contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.