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Iceland, by far the smallest country by population to appear at the World Cup, famously beat England in the last 16 of Euro 2016, and again inspired by their “thunder-clapping” fans ran tirelessly and fought for everything.
They signalled their intent from the kick off, sending seven men charging into the box to challenge as the ball was pumped long and it proved to be just the first of many uncomfortable moments for a decidedly shaky Argentine defence.
The South Americans looked more assured in attack, though, and went ahead when Aguero turned tightly in the box and smashed in an unstoppable shot.
Iceland, however, are not a team to sit back and sulk and soon forced an equaliser when goalkeeper Willy Caballero palmed Gylfi Sigurdsson’s low shot straight into the path of Finnbogason to sweep into the unguarded net.
In a game of vastly opposing styles but very slim margins, Lionel Messi had the chance to secure Argentina three points from the spot in the second half, although Icelandic stopper Hannes Thor Halldorsson produced a remarkable save to earn his side an unforgettable point.
Argentina might just have snatched three points in the final embers of the game when Pavon came in off the left flank to bend an effort through a number of bodies, leaving Halldorsson to again make another stunning save to push the ball away from the far corner and earn Iceland a famous point in their debut World Cup contest.
EAGLES FAIL TO FLY
Festus Abu, Kaliningrad
The Super Eagles on Saturday at the Kaliningrad Stadium lost 2-0 to the Croatia in their first match at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Croatia top Group D while Argentina are joint second with Iceland on one point each. Nigeria are last in the group with no point.
Eagles coach Gernot Rohr started teenager Francis Uzoho in goal while Shehu Adullahi, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun and Brian Idowu were in the defence. Captain Mikel Obi, Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi were in the midfield. China-based striker Odion Ighalo, Chelsea wing-back Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi were in the attack.
Nigeria started the better of the two sides as they settled against the Croats but the Europeans grew into the game and battled the Eagles for the control of the midfield. Unlike in their pre-World Cup friendlies, the Eagles were the better side in the first half.
However, the creativity of Real Madrid midfielder Modric and Barcelona holding midfielder Ivan Rakitic, gave the Eagles midfield a tough time as both sides sized each other up.
The Eagles’ first chance came in the second minute when Moses’ free-kick was gathered by the Croat goalkeeper – following a foul on the Chelsea wing-back.
Croatia’s first chance came in the 14th minute when Rakitic shot over the bar with Uzoho badly exposed. Moses and Iwobi failed to complement Ighalo in the attack as the Eagles failed to make a meaningful use of the set pieces coming their way.
However, the Eagles went behind in the 32nd when the defenders failed to effectively deal with a corner kick. The ball fell to Mandzukic whose header was diverted into the net by Etebo.
Nigeria rallied and searched for the equaliser but they failed to get past a dogged Croatian defence.
Rohr brought on Ahmed Musa for Iwobi but it failed to change the pace of the Eagles threat in the attack. The Croatians doubled their lead in the 70th minute after Troost-Ekong hauled down Mandzukic in the area following a corner kick. Modric converted the resultant penalty to seal the game for the Europeans.
Nigeria’s attack became lively when Rohr substituted Ighalo with Kelechi Iheanacho. However the Croatians forced Uzoho to make a save in the 78th minute as the Eagles lost control of the match.
Rohr then brought on Simeon Nwankwo for Mikel, as he searched for parity.
The Eagles have thus lost their third opening match at the World Cup – having also lost their opening fixtures in 2002 and 2010 – and on each occasion, they failed to progress from the group stages. Also, the team have failed to score in the last 180 minutes. Their last goal came during their 2-1 loss to England in a friendly match.
The Eagles will play Iceland, who drew 1-1 with Argentina on Saturday, in their second match on Friday.
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The Super Eagles’ performance against Croatia happened in contrast to the expectations of many, after a 2-0 loss disappointing in their opener of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Iceland is next how will they fare against a team that held Argentina?
Before that day, here are five focal reasons we Nigeria lost against Croatia.
Shaky back four and setpiece conundrum
In the build-up to the World Cup, Nigeria played three games against Dr Congo; one goal conceded, two against England and one against the Czech Republic, all from setpieces. And in their World Cup opener, two goals were conceded from a setpiece, which makes it a total of six goals conceded from setpieces.
This goes to show that the back-line of William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Sheu Abdullahi and Brian Idowu is yet to learn from past mistakes. They continue conceding goals in the same old manner. Though they looked quite composed in open play, the act of making every setpiece by opponents a potential attempt on goal must stop.
Poor transitional play
Another undoing of the team is the “poor transitional play”. The midfield couldn’t connect play from the middle of the park to the attack, instead, they pass to the back four that often passes to the goalie; Francis Uzhoho to kick it out for opposition to start play. At no time during the game did the personnel in the midfield threaded ten complete passes together, no talk of feeding the attack with the required balls to threaten the Croatian team in defence. Instead, the ball is kicked to no one in particular. Mikel and his cohort should be doing better.
Wrong player positioning
By now, Coach Gernot Rohr should know the most suitable positions each player can fit into according to adopted tactics. An example is playing the captain; John Obi Mikel who naturally shields the back four playing in the “No 10” position. Oghenekaro Etebo, a central midfielder playing the deep role alongside Wilfred Ndidi, while Alex Iwobi who thrives in the creative midfield position was pushed to the flanks.
One would think of the speed and pressure a 31-year-old Mikel would put on the opposition and what he creates for the team would be taken into consideration.
Of course, Mikel is not one of the crafty players anyone would call on to penetrate a defence. He has the passes to do on occasions. But how many times did he do that against Croatia? In the same way, you cannot be playing Etebo in defensive midfield position and expect to see him in his best.
The Super Eagles had 13 setpieces, including corner kicks taken in the opposition’s half, whereas the Croatian team only managed ten in the Eagle’s half. With fewer setpiece actions, they made the most of it. Victor Moses who’s performance is one to forget in a hurry kept taking unresultful setpiece as he also struggled to deliver a tallying cross all through the game. It is a known fact that the trusted setpiece taken in the team is John Obi Mikel, so why experiment Moses for a role he has not mastered before now at the World Cup?
At the beginning of the game, both teams were cautious and wary of each other. But the Croats changed gear. Unfortunately, Nigeria Gernot Rohr did not realize it until the end of the game. Had Rohr been sensitive to the pace of the game, Mikel would have long been substituted before the 84th minute when Simmy Nwankwo was introduced. Also, Ndidi and Leon Balogun seem not to have recuperated well which should have made him to introduce a like-for-like Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo to match.
With Croatia out of the way, Iceland comes next after they got a point off Argentina in their 1-1 draw. Certainly, they are no pushovers, hence the Gernot Rohr led Super Eagles should be prepared for a cracker.
In the other Group B match on Friday, Iran managed to defeat Morocco 1-0 thanks to a late, late own goal. It was terribly unlucky for the Moroccans, as they had generally controlled most of the play, yet they ended up losing out, and they now face an incredibly tough uphill battle. The early match of the day, in Group A, also included a very late goal, with Jose Gimenez scoring to give his Uruguay side a 1-0 win over Egypt. That meant all three games had goals in the 88th minute or later, adding to two scored in the Russia and Saudi Arabia game!
Absolutely heartbreaking for Morocco. They deserved a point and maybe more, but they were wasteful in front of goal and paid for it in the end.
And as a result, they are likely to be eliminated from the World Cup with Spain and Portugal still left on the slate.
Meanwhile, Iran has its second win in World Cup history, and first since beating the United States in 1998. One more win over either Spain or Portugal and they’ll likely be through to the knockout stage for the first time ever.