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World Cup 2014 Previews, Group F: Nigeria

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Team: Nigeria
Group: F
Schedule: June 16 vs. Iran; June 21 vs. Bosnia; June 25 vs. Argentina
World Cup Record: 4-8-2 (Round of 16, 1994/1998)
Qualifying Form: The Super Eagles went unbeaten in third stage of African qualification, then defeated Ethiopia 4-1 over a two-leg playoff.

Manager: Stephen Keshi — a mild outlier in sub-Saharan African soccer in that he’s a former player from the nation he’s coaching, rather than a hired hand from Europe. Keshi led Nigeria to victory at the African Cup of Nations in 2013, turning a dysfunctional, underachieving group into winners. Even so, the Nigeria FA is notorious for its meddling and politicking so without a strong World Cup, Keshi will likely be cast aside.

Player to Watch: Fans of the Premier League or English soccer in general probably think Victor Moses is grizzled veteran, but he’s only 23. He was a bit player on-loan from Chelsea at Liverpool this year, not doing much to distinguish himself. That said, since he was mostly used as a sub by Brendan Rodgers, he should be fresh coming into the World Cup. Moses might not be ideal to play off the main striker, but he does have the pace to get behind defenders and make a general nuisance of himself.

Tactics/Style: Yet another team in the 4-2-3-1 mold. Emmanuel Emenike is the lone striker. John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi are the midfield pivots. Peter Odemwingie is back in the squad after being dropped for the ACN last year. Although he’s developed the reputation as a malcontent, his goal-scoring ability will be useful from a wide position given the Super Eagles only scored 11 goals in eight qualifiers — four in the playoffs vs. Ethiopia.

Odds of winning: 250-to-1

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Miscellany: Keeper Vincent Enyeama has been playing with the Super Eagles since 2002 and is regarded as the best at his position in African soccer. … Perhaps it was a step up in competition or fatigue, but Nigeria lost by an aggregate 5-1 to Uruguay and Spain at last summer’s Confederations Cup. The Super Eagles mushed Tahiti, at least. … Nigeria is grouped with Argentina for the fourth time since 1998. … You have to go back to 1998 and the days of Jay-Jay Okocha for the last time Nigeria won a World Cup game. … Mikel — a key at the African Cup of Nations last year — was relegated to cameo appearances after Chelsea added Nemanja Matic in January, so he might not be 100 percent match sharp. The same thing goes for Joseph Yobo, who most Prem fans probably didn’t even realize made a move to Norwich City in January. … Sunday Mba, a hero at the 2013 African Cup of Nations, had travel/visa issues but has finally joined up with the squad.

A moment for Jay-Jay: When the Premier League became readily available to American televisions in the early part of the 21st Century, Okocha was one of its most memorable, dynamic players at Sam Allardyce’s multi-national Bolton squad. The Nigerian legend retired in 2008. Feels like, in terms of soccer, a century ago since we rarely see one “No. 10 shirt” on the ball so much, pulling all the offensive strings for a team in the center of the field. The late-90s/mid-00s baggy jerseys make footage look a lot older than it actually is in reality, too.

Last word: The Nigerian team that won the 2013 African Cup of Nations wasn’t a historically great team, rather one that got on a roll in the knockout rounds — notably beating the Ivory Coast with a late goal to win 2-1 in the quarterfinals. Trying to recapture that unity, hustle, team spirit and all the other non-measurable metrics from tournament-to-tournament is going to be hard for Keshi — or any manager — to replicate. Nigeria caught a break, drawing with Iran first. If the Eagles can put three points in the bank they’ll control their own fate going forward into their crucial second game with Bosnia.

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