Nigeria Camp Focus – How will the loss of a talisman affect Nigeria?

Injuries had already disrupted Nigeria’s preparations for the World Cup. Enforced absence robbed the squad of key defender Onyekachi Apam, whilst Coach Lars Lagerback deemed Ikechukwu Uche’s return to fitness to be too late to earn a place in the squad. To compound the problem, this week saw Nigeria lose their talismanic midfielder John Obi Mikel. Despite being named in the 23-man squad, he was unable to overcome knee problems which ruled him out of Chelsea’s successful Premier League and FA. Cup run-in. He had already missed out on their warm-up matches with Saudi Arabia and Colombia, and was also the last player to join up with their preliminary training camp in Essex before the tournament. With such a fractured preparation, it seems unsurprising that he would eventually pull out from the squad.

However, such was his importance to the squad that Lagerback left it to the midfielder to make the decision about his participation. In the end, Mikel felt it counterproductive to both his recovery and his nation’s chances this summer to remain a part of the squad when not fully fit. It was a decision taken with long-term interests in mind. Speaking of the knee injury which forced his withdrawal from the squad, Mikel said: “I did not want to risk any further damage, also I think it is in the best interest of the team for me to withdraw rather than to waste a slot.” One man’s disaster is another man’s fortune, however. Mikel’s injury has offered a reprieve to Sochaux forward Brown Ideye, who has endured a fortnight of conflicting emotions. His dreams quashed as he was one of the seven unfortunates to be evicted from the preliminary squad, before his holidays ere cut short by Mikel’s recurrent injury.

Ideye joins the squad without a cap to his name, and on the back of a difficult first six months at his club. In spite of his paltry two goals in 17 games for Sochaux, he is a player who offers considerably more of a goal threat than the stately Mikel – as evidenced by his record of 23 goals in 55 for his previous club, Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland. Tempering Mikel’s absence was Nigeria’s 3-1 victory over North Korea in their final friendly. Their stalemates against Colombia and Saudi Arabia hitherto had raised worries about the potency of Nigeria’s strike-force. Those fears were banished as Yakubu, Victor Obinna and Obafemi Martins sealed a comfortable victory against another side who will take their place at World Cup this summer.

Aside from Haruna Lakuna’s thirty-yard drive against Colombia, Nigeria’s goal threat had been kept to a minimum. With their opening game against Argentina looming, those fears were assuaged by the ruthlessness of their strikers in front of goal. Yakubu’s opener in particular proved cause for optimism – finishing a slick midfield build-up which culminated in a quick one-two at the edge of the area before finding the net. That the side is capable of such slick, accurate passing without its main creator can only be a good sign of the squad’s strength in depth, raising hopes of progressing beyond the group stage. Nigeria can look towards their opening game against Argentina with a little more optimism. Despite boasting some of the greatest talent in world football (Lionel Messi, Diego Milito and Carlos Tevez in particular are likely to provide a thorn in Nigeria’s side entering the World Cup on the back of successful seasons with their clubs) Argentina’s qualification was even more fraught than that of Nigeria’s. Whilst it took a final day collapse by Tunisia to enable Nigeria to progress, Argentina’s capacity to press the self-destruct button jeopardised their campaign. They too had to rely on a final day victory over Uruguay to qualify.

Nigeria has not been unique in being affected by injuries preceding the World Cup. Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Gareth Barry, Nani and Michael Essien are just a flavouring of the big names who are either doubts or who will miss out. However, injuries have affected the Super Eagles more than most. All of these problems will be at the back of their minds come Saturday. Instead, they may wish to remember the Olympic Final of Atlanta 1996 where they enjoyed their finest hour, triumphing 3-2. A repeat of that scoreline would set up Nigeria perfectly for Greece and Korea Republic.

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