By Duro Ikhazuagbe in Volgograd
If a nation’s population was 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 the excesses of 180 million people is on the verge of joining two others 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 Iceland’s opening Group D one-all draw with two-time world champions, Argentina, and Nigeria’s 2-0 loss to Croatia, the Nordic nation now stands between Super Eagles ambition of progressing to the knock out 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 ‘Battle of Stalingrad’ 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 Hitler’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 Iceland’s continued drive to join football super-powers riding on the crest of a Nigerian victory? That is the tasks 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 2016 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 signaled they are not in Russia to see the beaches and landmarks.
With Heimir Hallgrimsson, a qualified 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 includes 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 this evening against Nigeria. They are also counting on the thunderous clapping of their fans to fire PAGE TWOthem 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.
“We 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,” 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 ‘do or die’ one for Eagles.
“The loss (to Croatia) is behind us, we will die there in the game against Iceland,” Ndidi was quoted on the official Twitter handle of the Super Eagles yesterday 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 ‘Oyinbo Wall’ 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 Mourinho’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.
*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.