25 June 2014

Nigeria: Ahmed Musa Leads Nigerian Attack Into Knockouts, and the Future

Ahmed Musa, Emmanuel Emenike and Peter Odemwingie have led Nigeria's line on their path through World Cup Group F. As well as goals, the trio offer an eclectic mixture of power and pace, youth and experience.

African Cup of Nations holders Nigeria are sometimes forgotten in the global discussion about African teams. The current crop of Super Eagles does not contain superstars to rival Yaya Toure or Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o or Ghana's Asamoah Gyan.

This could have changed in time for the next World Cup in Russia. Ahmed Musa, twice a scorer against Argentina on Wednesday, is just 21 years old. He played on the left wing against Lionel Messi and friends, scoring the same amount of goals on the night as the four-time World Player of the Year. On the basis of the youngster's performances in Brazil, he'll be one to watch - and rather better known around the world - by the time of the 2018 comptetition.

The CSKA Moscow attacker, formerly of VVV Venlo in the Netherlands, took both his goals with aplomb. The first was a tidy right-footed finish from a tight angle on the edge of the box, the second the upshot of an excellent one-two with Nigeria's out-and-out striker Emmanuel Emenike. Only an exceptional last-ditch tackle from Pablo Zabaleta stopped Musa from going for his hat-trick, and the equalizer, late in the game. Nigeria's coach Paul Keshi raved about Messi's performance on the night, but might have laid his focus elsewhere.

"Messi is one heck of a player. You can't take that away from him. He's blessed. I think there are other players in the Argentina squad who are very strong, but Messi is from Jupiter," Keshi said, presumably implying that Musa's either from neighboring Saturn or Mars.

Musa's second was the result of great link-up play with Emenike

Asamoah Gyan became Africa's joint-top World Cup scorer this week, equaling Roger Milla's long-standing five-goal record. Musa, now on two, could return for at least two more World Cups, and the rest of this one, to chase that tally.

Early starter

Musa made a name for himself at home at an early age. In 2011, aged 18, he set the single-season scoring record for the Nigerian Premier League by scoring 18 goals in 25 games. This record has since been eclipsed, but the teenager's breakout season earned him his move to the Netherlands, and then on to Russia. On the basis of his World Cup so far, another club upgrade could be on the cards as early as this summer's transfer window.

If Musa is one for the future, he's partnered by more senior strike partners in the Nigerian 4-3-3 formation. Emenike, 27, has emerged as a solid spearhead, comfortable both holding up the ball and driving towards goal.

The Fenerbahce forward is Nigeria's only attacker yet to find the net, but was the provider for Musa's second on Wednesday. Emenike also created his country's most important goal in Brazil: Peter Odemwingie's winner against Bosnia-Herzegovina, a goal which ultimately put Nigeria on their way to the knockout stages. If Musa can plan around at least two more World Cups, Emenike would hope for at least one more outing on the world stage come 2018.

Experienced heads

Odemwingie, meanwhile, might be playing his last major tournament aged 32. But the Stoke City winger boasts the Super Eagles' most big-stage experience. The tricky wide man, born in the former Soviet Union in what's now Uzbekistan, spent time with the CSKA Moscow youth academy - Musa's current club - as a teenager. His career has taken him to top-flight teams in France, Russia and England, with Odemwingie now a four-year veteran of the English Premier League.

Tag team: Odemwingie (far right) points an appreciative finger at his goal's provider, Emenike (number 9)

In a more difficult group, such as Ghana's or even Cameroon's, Nigeria might not have survived the first round of the World Cup. A fortunate draw or not, the Super Eagles have managed what Spain, England and Italy could not as they now face the knockout stages.

Even without the kind of stellar names that lit up their past - such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwu Kanu or Daniel Amokachi - Nigeria's Brazilian adventure continues thanks to one of their most experienced sides ever. The country's most-capped player Joseph Yobo leads the line in defense and the next in line, Vincent Enyeama, guards the goal with formidable strength. Add holding midfielder John Obi Mikel, another English Premiership veteran, to the mix and the country might still dream of an upset. Their most likely opponent's are France, whose attack is imposing and defense organized. But after Nigeria gave Argentina a run for their money, the Super Eagles should not suffer from vertigo against the French.

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