Like the 1994 World Cup, the setting for the Super Eagles in Brazil is very much the same. Again the Eagles are second to Argentina in the qualifying round. And just like the pairing 20 years ago, the Eagles are faced with a European opposition, France, who are considered the bookmakers' favourite (1.50) to go through the round of 16. So the Super Eagles, already, are the plucky underdogs that will be punching above their weight category against France.
But the Super Eagles' confidence must be high coming from the following backdrops. Few years back, the Eagles had beaten the French team in France though in a friendly match. But where the zeal will come from the more is in Coach Stephen Keshi, the Big Boss, whose playing and coaching knowledge of the game is purely European. Let's recall an exclusive encounter with him at the USA '94 tournament. At one of the media interactions at the Hotel Holiday Mansfield in Boston where the Super Eagles camped then, the discussion centered on Eagles' fortune in the tournament. Keshi took a hard look at the pairing, which then was against Italy, and sighed: "How I wish we were playing Belgium. We would have showed them that we developed their football". Keshi obviously was referring to his playing days in Belgium and the days of countless other Nigerian footballers who also plied their trade in the European country. His current assistant, Daniel Amokachi, also earned his maturity as a player in Belgium.
But Keshi will not be leading the Super Eagles to play Belgium on Monday. He will, instead, be playing France and yet his confidence to beat the Les Blues and progress Nigeria to the quarter final stage is at all-time high. The reason for this is not hard to see. The French also admired the quality of Keshi as a player. In the twilight of his career, Keshi was literally begged with the captain's band by Strasbourg to move across the border to salvage the dwindling fortunes of its football club.
It can however be argued that the rescue voyage of Keshi then and the Super Eagles' triumph in a friendly over the Les Blues were in the days the French football was in the doldrums. Now the French team under Coach Didier Deschamps is a much better packaged side. They are so good that they finished tops of Group E without conceding a match. France, in this tournament, parades some of the best players currently in Brazil. Karim Benzema, still fresh from the Champions League win with Real Madrid, leads the French attack. He is supported by Olivier Giroud whom Arsene Wenger once described as a "tough, tough boy" in the attack. Both players are believed to be clinical operators within the box. They parade quite intimidating credentials. But against such vaunted strikers, the resilient Eagles' defence has always stood firm. A Joseph Yobo-led Super Eagles backline is already feeling comfortable in the tournament, so much so that where they were supposed to be streamrolled by Lionel Messi and Argentina and Edin Dzeko and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the defence stood its ground. Benzema and Giroud are certainly not in the mode of Messi and Dzeko. In their match against Ecuador, they exhibited some extreme recklessness in front of goal. The duo operates well when they are with the ball.
So their suppliers will be the target of Eagles' defence and midfield. Their balls come from the midfield where they depend heavily on Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Mousa Sissoko. Interestingly, that same department is where the strength of the Super Eagles lies. The midfield is the engine room where John Mikel Obi and Ogenyi Onazi are the chief engineers. Both players have masterminded and executed the task of stopping some of the toughest opponents that have come their way. Added to this defensive credential, they also provide the tonic that propels the Eagles attack. A Pogba, Matuidi and Sissoko formation does not look tough enough to overcome Obi and Onazi. In the recent French outings, this formation allowed so much space between them. That will play in our favour. Mikel and Onazi are so energetic and creative in the middle that they are, as mentioned earlier, the key to the Eagles' string of successes. France's most trusted department is considered to be their defence line. But the rush by first place picks, Patrice Evra and Raphel Verane, to join the attack often leaves the defence porous.
This disadvantage will create a fertile ground for the Eagles. The speedy Ahmed Musa, who now relishes coming from the middle, and the wily Osaze Odemwingie will be happy to catch them on the counter. Mamadou Sakho and Mathieu Debuchy may be considered the rock of the French defence, but we will only wait and see how they will fare against the bullish play of Emmanuel Emenike. The sheer power and ruggedness of the Fernabache player have often left defenders floundering, as the captain of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Emir Spahic, can attest to. Against France, Emenike may just well be Stephen Keshi's joker to knock down and tire out the defence.
So far the dribbling guts of Michael Babatunde, has been a revelation. His role was to confuse the opponent's defence further. Such play has been part of Keshi's tactical formation that has yielded the results Nigerians are hoping to continue. But with injury sidelining Babatunde for the remaining part of the World Cup, a reliable substitute will be deployed. The Super Eagles have been mostly criticized at home for lacking in individual brilliance. Such criticism however has come from people who are still fixated to the era of Austin Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu. This present crop of Super Eagles thrives on team work and it all boils down to the coaching depth of Keshi. That is the hallmark of a quality manager, a truly world-class coach.
Sam John is a Lagos-based veteran sports journalist with several World Cup experience before retiring into PR consultancy