By Duro Ikhazuagbe in Volgograd
If a nationâ€™s population is the yardstick for participating at the World Cup, Iceland will not be here at Russia 2018. The nation of barely 330,000 people (not up to 1/3 of Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos State) will not even be considered to take part in the qualifying rounds to select the 32 teams to play at the Mundial.
Nigeria, with a population in excess of 180 million people is on the verge of joining two other teams from the continent — Egypt and Morocco — in booking their trips back home.
Iceland has defied bookmakers and is now on the march to joining great football-playing nations of the world.
With Icelandâ€™s opening Group D one-all draw with two-time world champions, Argentina, and Nigeriaâ€™s 2-0 loss to Croatia, the Nordic nation now stands between Super Eagles ambition of progressing to the knockout stage of Russia 2018.
All that will be decided here at the 45,000-capacity Volgograd Arena in the city that holds a special place in the hearts of the hosts Russians.
Going down memory lane, Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) which is 940km to the south of Moscow, was where the unforgettable â€˜Battle of Stalingradâ€™ took place during the Second World War.
About two million persons were believed to have been killed here by German soldiers during their expansionist quests. But the Russians (formerly Soviets) resisted and succeeded in aborting Adolf Hitlerâ€™s push into their territory.
As the home team this evening, will the Super Eagles also have the same character as the Russians in aborting Icelandâ€™s continued drive to join football super powers riding on the crest of a Nigerian victory? That is the task before John Mikel Obi and his teammates as Coach Gernot Rohr rolls out his tank in this must win or burst clash with the Euro 2016Â quarter finalists.
Like they did two years ago in France, Iceland without superstar players beyond Gylfi Sigurdsson who plays as an attacking midfielder with Everton in the English Premiership, have signalled they are not in Russia to see the beaches and landmarks.
With Heimir Hallgrimsson, a dentist as head coach, Iceland frustrated Argentina with their compact and hard-working collective performance last Saturday. They frustrated Lionel Messi to the point of missing a penalty that could have won the game for the South Americans.
Now, the dentist and his players that include goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, a film director, are aiming to repeat the deep-lying defence to also make their progress to the last 16 a reality.
The only player not fully fit in their squad is Johann Gudmundsson, who remains a major doubt to recover before they file out Friday evening against Nigeria. They are also counting on the thunderous clapping of their fans to fire them on.
All through the week at the Super Eagles camp in Essentuki, handlers of the team and the players have used valuable time to review the match against Croatia and corrected those flaws from the set pieces that they struggled with.
Rohr admitted at Eagles last training before departing for Volgograd that the players have worked hard to deserve victory against the Icelanders.
â€œWe have worked hard and reviewed the match against Croatia. It will be a tough game. We will be at our best and be more professional with our defending especially from set pieces,â€ stressed the Franco-German gaffer ahead of the game.
Leicester City enforcer Wilfred Ndidi who is one of the nine players making their debut for Nigeria at the World Cup, corroborated his coach and went a step further to say that the match is a â€˜do or dieâ€™ one for Eagles.
â€œThe loss (to Croatia) is behind us, we will die there in the game against Iceland,â€ Ndidi was quoted on the official Twitter handle of the Super Eagles on Thursday morning.
Not much changes are expected in the Nigerian playing personnel beyond the fact that pacy winger, Ahmed Musa, is likely to be in the starting line up from what was observed at the training in Essentuki.
As usual, youngster, Francis Odinaka Uzoho who is growing in confidence will be in goal with likely Tyronne Ebuehi starting ahead of Shehu Abdullahi on the right back. Rohr may retain Bryan Idowu or start Elderson Echiejile on the left back. The â€˜Oyinbo Wallâ€™ stays in place with the duo of Leon Balogun and William Troost Ekong as partners.
The midfield is where trouble lies. Will Rohr accept Jose Mourinhoâ€™s advice of switching Mikel to be in front of the central defenders or stick with him as Number 10? The consensus among informed Nigerian officials and fans here is to start Oghenekaro Etebo with both Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa doing the runs from the wings with Alex Iwobi and Odion Ighalo at the centre. Ninety minutes stand between Nigeria and Iceland in deciding their fate in Group D.
(Nigeria v Iceland)
*In their only previous meeting, Iceland triumphed 3-0 in a 1981 friendly.
GERIA*All five of Nigeria’s wins at the World Cup have come against European sides.
*The Super Eagles have won just one of their last 13 World Cup games (D3, L9), with that victory coming against Bosnia and Herzegovina at Brazil 2014.
*Eagles have failed to progress from the group stage on both previous occasions they have lost their opening game.
*Nigeria is currently on a World Cup losing streak of three games, the worst run since losing four matches between 1998 and 2002.
*Eagles have failed to score in six of their last 11 World Cup matches.
*Iceland drew her first ever World Cup game against Argentina. The last country to avoid defeat in her opening two matches is Senegal at Korea/Japan 2002.
*Alfred Finnbogason has scored in his last three appearances for Iceland, though they’ve failed to win any of those matches (D2, L1).
*After recording eight shots in the first half against Argentina, Iceland failed to register an attempt on goal in the rest of the match.
Saraki, Others to Cheer Eagles in Volgograd
Nigeriaâ€™s number three citizen, Senate President Bukola Saraki, will attend Fridayâ€™s second Group D World Cup 2018 clash with Iceland in Volgograd, Russia.
Also certain to be on ground to support the three-time African champions include: Ambassador of Nigeria to the Russian Federation, Professor Steve Davies Ugbah; the Permanent Secretary in the Youth and Sports Ministry, Mr. Olusade Adesola; Nigeriaâ€™s IOC Member Habu Ahmed Gumel and a full complement of the NFF Executive Committee led by the President, Mr. Amaju Melvin Pinnick.
NFFâ€™s Director of Communication, Ademola Olajire, confirmed to Nigerian sports journalists covering the Mundial here in Russia that there will also be distinguished senators and members of the House of Representatives, members of the NFF Congress, directors in the ministry, NFF management and staff, football stakeholders including former presidents and secretaries-general of the NFF, and a large number of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club and Nigerians resident in Russia.
Some of the past NFF presidents in Russia include, Gen. Dominic Oneya, Ibrahim Galadima, Kojo Williams, etc. Also here are past secretary generals like, Drs Tijani Yusuf and Bolaji Ojo-Oba, Sani Toro and Taiwo Ogunjobi.
Victory on Friday would be a turning point in Nigeriaâ€™s 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign as it will give hope to Eagles making it to the knockout stage that has become the countryâ€™s benchmark since debuting at USA â€˜â€™94.
Gabriel Jesus Becomes Brazilâ€™s Young Veteran
Gabriel Jesus was just 17 when his beloved SeleÃ§Ã£o suffered their crushing semi-final defeat to Germany at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He was pictured back then painting the streets of his Sao Paulo neighbourhood green and yellow, an image that went viral online.
Asked to recall that fateful day, Brazilâ€™s current No. 9 was remarkably poised, keeping any emotions he might feel about it well in check.
â€œIâ€™ve been playing football since I was six,” he said. “I was 17 and Iâ€™d been involved in a professional environment at Palmeiras. I knew what football was all about and so I didnâ€™t take it as badly as some people who are outside the game.â€
Now 21, Gabriel will be the youngest member of the SeleÃ§Ã£o side that will take on Costa Rica Friday in Saint Petersburg. Though as his answer above shows, he already sees himself as something of a veteran.
That mindset is probably the reason why he has not been singled out by the squadâ€™s more experienced members for the kind of jokes typically played on new boys. As he himself says, he is no longer a child.
His maturity also explains why the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) asked him to attend a press conference three days before the teamâ€™s opening match, when the most normal course of action would have been to send a more experienced member of the squad along.
His media appearance came as even more of a surprise after a friend of his attended a closed training session in Sochi the day before and then posted a video of it online.
â€œItâ€™s a good job I scored with the header. If Iâ€™d missed, it would have been in the news,â€ he told the assembled media. â€œAt least he didnâ€™t post anything tactical. Iâ€™d have got a telling-off if he had,â€ he added to much laughter.
The young striker faces bigger threats to his starting place than online video, not least as a result of Roberto Firminoâ€™s superb season with Liverpool, which has led to a large section of the Brazilian media predicting a change up front.
â€œLet me be clear about this: itâ€™s a positive thing to have two centre-forwards who are good enough to start,â€ said Gabriel. â€œItâ€™s healthy to have competition for places and Iâ€™m very happy heâ€™s in such good form. Iâ€™ll be cheering him on if he plays.â€
Firmino has a compelling claim to a starting place, but then so does the current first-choice front man, not least because of his constant movement in attack and his work-rate. As well as pressing opposing defenders, Gabriel also tracks back tirelessly to help out in defence.
Another important factor is the faith that Tite has in him, which the coach has shown since his first game in charge of A SeleÃ§Ã£o: a challenging trip to Quito, where the striker scored twice on his international debut to help Brazil beat Ecuador 3-0.
Along with Neymar, Gabriel is also Brazilâ€™s joint top scorer in the Tite era with 10 goals. That return has caught the eye of experts such as Ronaldo, who paid a visit to A SeleÃ§Ã£o in Rostov-on-Don. â€œI think heâ€™s looking very good and heâ€™s maturing fast,â€ said O FenÃ´meno.
Gabriel has all the support he needs and is in confident mood, though he is well aware that appearing in your first World Cup is no easy task. â€œItâ€™s not exactly a relaxing experience,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s the biggest competition in football and there are bound to be nerves,â€ he added, speaking like a true veteran.
Desperate Argentina Aiming to Stop Croatia
After making their best start to a World Cup in 20 years thanks to their 2-0 defeat of Nigeria, Croatia are in relaxed mood ahead of their meeting with the Group D favourites. Any kind of result against Argentina will allow the Vatreni to take a big step towards the Round of 16.
La Albiceleste are in an entirely different situation. The unexpected draw with tournament debutants Iceland has left Jorge Sampaoli’s side with much to do ahead of what looks to be their toughest assignment in the section.
A win is vital if they are to avoid a nerve-wracking final match. Yet if there is one thing that Argentina proved on their tortuous journey to Russia it is that they can respond when under pressure.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli is set to ring the changes, both in terms of tactics and personnel.
His aim is to fashion a starting line-up that remains competitive but which can also play better football and penetrate the opposition defence down the flanks. Speed of response and the ability to keep their shape will also be crucial for the Argentines at the back, as will the need to sharpen their finishing.
Speaking after the Nigeria game, Mario Mandzukic said Croatia’s objective was to perform well and, if they could, emulate the nationâ€™s run at France 1998, the only occasion on which they advanced beyond the group phase in their previous four world finals appearances.