Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group F

It's Argentina and three others, right? Probably so; the albiceleste never normally struggle with the group stage at World Cups and their rivals here look unlikely to stand in their way, though. However the battle for second place in this group is one of the most open; even the weakest side on paper, Iran, are far from true also-rans. They, like Bosnia and Nigeria, can justifiably set their sights on passage to the second round, and the crafty Bosnians, counterattacking Nigerians and defensive and solid Iranians will offer a fascinating mix of styles.


Is Higuain to have a good world cup? Sorry
If this tournament were being played anywhere but Brazil, Argentina would probably be joint favourites with Germany. As it is, the quality of personnel at their disposal puts them right up among the contenders, and it’s not too fanciful to suppose that they might even turn the “disadvantage” of playing behind their biggest rivals’ lines into something of a psychological edge. While it would be foolish to deny that their hopes are invested in Leo Messi, this is far from a one man team, even if the depth of quality across the squad is a little uneven. The key to success at the business end of this World Cup might turn out to be the ability to unlock Brazil’s world class defence, or to outdo Spain or Germany for possession. If any team can do that, then surely it's the Argentines?

The forward line needs little introduction. It's led by Gonzalo Higuain, an orthodox no.9 who is probably the most complete player in that position at this World Cup.  Unlike many traditional centre-forwards, Higuain is quick off the mark, and is a threat around, as well as in, the penalty box. Devastating in the last World Cup at only 22, his goals-to-games ratio is comfortably the best of Argentina’s front three. The remainder of that three is made up of the hyper-mobile Sergio Aguero, whose goalscoring form has been utterly irresistible at Manchester City. He’s not quite as prolific at international level as for his club, but still troubles the scorers regularly, dropping back from the front line to unleash mayhem as Messi runs from deep and Higuain leads the line. Leo himself meanwhile has steadily improved his Argentina form under current coach Alejandro Sabella, and grabbed ten goals in qualifying. It’s not just that Argentina have such a high quality of individual to draw on, but that the three have learned to combine so effectively; in particular, Higuain and Messi often hit the scoresheet together in qualifying, with the former claiming nine goals. Messi for his part can no longer be described as an underperformer at international level; but this is, perhaps, the biggest chance he’ll get to take a World Cup by the scruff of the neck, so there is some pressure. There’s some reasonably capable backup to the killer trio, with Rodrigo Palacio always among the goals at Inter; winger/striker Ezequiel Lavezzi, on the other hand, has not done much in a national shirt to justify his membership of the “fantastic four” (the other three are obvious) on any ground other than alliterative necessity.
Lining up in 4-3-3, Argentina use a midfield with a mixture of combativity and creativity. Javier Mascherano is the classic deep-lying holding player; wasted a little by Barcelona as a centre-back, he revels in his centrality to everything the national side does. Outside him, Argentina have seen the rise of Angel di Maria continue, probably the second great magician in the side after Messi. Although somehow ungainly on first glimpse, Di Maria’s playing style is mesmerizing, with quick feet, acceleration and a marvelous range of feints and switches, as well as a great capacity for work. He's a halfway house between the modern uber-midfielder and the classic winger. Sitting somewhere between Mascherano and Di Maria in approach is Fernando Gago. A regular sight in a Madrid shirt for years, his career in Spain somewhat petered out through injury and he has faded from the view of European audiences. But at 28 he is far from a spent force – this isn’t necessarily even his last world cup – and his balance of combative energies and incisive passing make him the metronome in midfield. Unfortunately, injury has struck again, and he is fighting a knee problem to make the group stages. In his absence the midfield becomes a little more workmanlike and its linkages a little less smooth. Lucas Biglia offers the box-to-box presence that Argentina otherwise lack, and got game time in qualifying; no magician, he is nonetheless reliable. Reported Tottenham target Ever Banega is a playmaker broadly in the Gago mould, approaching his prime and with several years’ campaigning in the big leagues with Valencia behind him. His international career has failed to take flight however, possibly because he doesn’t really offer much of a change of shape or pace as against the first choice midfield. Sabella has also brought longtime campaigner Maxi Rodriguez along to Brazil, although he's no longer a starter; though not lacking in skill, Rodriguez’ game was always based as much on energy as on guile, so age is starting to take its toll at 33. Still, he is likely to feature as a substitute. Of the other squad choices, Augusto Fernandez is a lively winger from Celta Vigo who has staked his international claim relatively late at 28; it’s difficult to see how he fits into Argentina’s system however, save as an understudy. Meanwhile Ricardo “Ricky” Alvarez of Inter is a pacy attacking midfielder, more direct and therefore less subtle than some of his midfield rivals, while Enzo Perez, a vital cog in the Benfica machine that reached two successive Europa League finals, has yet to find his role internationally.

Argentina’s defence has been questioned, not least by their own media and fans; it was not spectacularly leaky in qualifying but not miserly either (CONMEBOL qualifying generally being quite a goal-happy affair). However, the personnel seem solid enough, so perhaps some of the criticism is a hangover from the thumping defeat that dumped Argentina out of World Cup 2010 at the hands of Germany. That, however, was largely the result of Diego Maradona’s open and naïve tactics. In the middle of defence the preferred pairing is Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez. Neither is vastly experienced at international level, but both are established with high profile and progressive clubs in Europe (Benfica and Napoli respectively). At backup, Martin Dimichelis’ experience has won him a place in the squad although his Manchester City season was far from flawless. Jose Maria Basanta, another centre-back, also travels. At right back there seems little reason to question the quality of Pablo Zabaleta, a Manchester City first teamer and at first sight the complete modern full back; his partner on the left, Marcos Rojo, is a little less assured but still the obvious first choice. Inter’s Hugo Campagnaro, an international late bloomer, offers further backup. At goalkeeper there’s something of a tussle for selection between Sergio Romero and the slightly older, but less established, Mariano Andujar; neither is a superstar but neither a liability. Sabella remains mysteriously unaware of the majestic form of Crystal Palace’s Julian Speroni.
All in all, Argentina just about merit the stellar predictions being made for them. Their attack is literally peerless, even in this company; we’ve no compunction in pronouncing it the World Cup's best. In midfield the range of established top level talent is excellent, especially if Gago is fit, though in his absence Argentina will probably lose something, either in solidity or in creativity. The defence is, probably rightly, being identified as the weakest link, but that’s relative. Zabaleta is a first class player at his peak, and the concern about him, Fernandez, Garay and Rojo should surely be about lack of World cup experience, rather than about fundamental quality. Even that seems a minor worry, however, since of those players only Garay (with 18 appearances) has less than 20 caps. It’s just that most of the midfield and forward line are veterans of 2010 whereas the defenders are not. Argentina’s main weakness is that they rely on the fitness and form of a relatively established first XI whose backup is not of the same standard. Assuming everyone (except maybe Gago) is present and correct, things look positive, and as a final point it’s worth noting that the draw has been kind to Argentina both in terms of their group stage opponents and their likely path thereafter.

Strengths: Top quality in attack; solid midfield and decent defence; experience; comfort in South American conditions; easy draw.
Weaknesses: Inexperience in middle of defence; backup options a considerable step down in quality; weight of expectations; slight possibility of losing their way in the defence-attack transition as they lack real “box-to-boxness” in the middle, where they depend on Gago.
Young player to watch: Even the blooming potential in this side tends to be in its mid twenties. Nobody springs to mind to be honest, although Lisandro Ezequiel Lopez will be looking to stake his claim to a piece of the future, if he gets game.
Verdict: Very serious contenders… but then they always are. Quarters at least, semis quite likely.


Pjanic: we tried to find a photo of him at the disco.
One of the less beguiling aspects of this World Cup is the lack of debutant teams. With fairly orthodox lists of familiar qualifiers from Asia and, in particular, Africa, there is in fact only one set of absolute beginners – Bosnia. One of three European sides at this tournament who are historically strong at present – the others being Switzerland and Belgium – Bosnia have made their progress by playing fast, attacking, and at times strikingly open football. Like Chile in 2010 therefore, they have the potential to be real hipster favourites, although their coach Safet Susic is no Bielsa-style philosopher. Susic’s selections are dictated by the limited resources available to him, which just happen to be much stronger in attack than in defence. Susic is thus that rarest of birds, the all-out-attacking pragmatist.
So what can Group F expect? Bosnia tore up the field in their group, scoring 30 goals in 10 games, although many of these came from flat-track bullying the likes of Latvia and Lichtenstein. That should be put in perspective however; until very recently, Bosnia and Latvia were footballing peers. Anyway, the Bosnians avoided defeat against group favourites Greece, an experienced side who went on to qualify, so their achievement should not be underestimated. Their unexpected display of attacking brio wasn’t entirely about Edin Dzeko, either, although he more than played a part by scoring exactly a third of his country’s goals. The stealth redhead has been a cult favourite since helping outsiders Wolfsburg take the Bundesliga crown in 2009. Almost as essential to Bosnia’s progress has been Vedad Ibisevic, who for years now has been scoring goals of every kind by the hatful in the Bundesliga, and we’re talking big, ten gallon Texan hats here. In the first half of the 08/09 season, while Dzeko was tearing it up in the green of Wolfsburg, the barrel-chested Ibisevic ruffled the net 18 times in 17 games for Hoffenheim before injury struck. This World Cup is his reward for years of highly professional, honest work for smaller clubs, finally resulting in a move to Stuttgart where his form has continued. Bosnia fairly stubbornly play with two strikers, although there is virtually no backup to their first choice combo. Everyone else who could even vaguely be described as a forward is actually some kind of winger or no.10, so in the event of an injury or suspension up front the likeliest route is a switch to 4-5-1 or similar.

Players like Dzeko and Ibisevic need a supply line, and fortunately Bosnia have a couple of playmakers to match. Miralem Pjanic is perhaps their most marketable asset after Dzeko. Only 24, he already has bags of experience in France and is now a fixture at Roma; a useful dribbler although not ferociously quick, he offers the full playmaker repertoire of goals from deep, set-piece mastery and pinpoint passing. A broadly similar type of player, but operating further forward and with more of an eye for goal, is Zvjezdan Misimovic, Bosnia’s all-time most capped player. Lacking pace, he is nonetheless able to ghost into goalscoring positions from the apex of midfield, deploying his outstanding close control. He's still a force at 32 years of age, as demonstrated by his 5 goals in qualifying. Despite winning the Bundesliga alongside Dzeko in 2009, he is nowadays virtually unknown to audiences outside Bosnia and plays his club football in China. The World Cup will be a suitable stage for him, even if late in coming. Hanging slightly wider on the left is Senad Lulic, an established Lazio first teamer vaguely reminiscent, in style, of Stewart Downing. You’ll have gathered by now that explosive pace is not a Bosnian strong point, and even Lulic isn’t dramatically quick for a winger. He injects some industry, however, into what otherwise might be a languid forward-midfield. At the back of the diamond, Bosnia have more of a choice, with Haris Medunjanin, fairly creative for a holding midfielder, a favoured option; he could however be edged aside by more prosaic utility man Sejad Salihovic. Youngster Muhamed Besic, Anel Hadzic of Sturm Graz, Tino Susic of Standard Liege (the coach’s nephew) and Bochum holding man Adnan Zahirovic are other options. Unbelievably, all of them are central defensive midfielders, and all of them have made the final travelling party. Although Susic has the reputation of a man who thinks Plan B’s are for wimps, he has recently shown signs of searching for ways of switching things up – playing with Dzeko as a lone striker in a recent friendly – and to this end, he's packed the squad with midfielders (twelve of them!). Even so, any reformulation of the midfield is likely to involve a rotation of the existing first-choice personnel; there are some signs of interest in Pjanic as a withdrawn, Pirlo-style playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 setup. Options to mix up the attacking midfield include Izet Hajrovic, Edin Visca and Senijad Ibricic, all playing in Turkey. Of these, Visca is perhaps the most interesting, despite his exile in the Turkish second division with Istanbul BB. Apart from anything else, he is actually reasonably quick; he also likes to shoot on sight.

As you might expect, the Bosnian defence is not the domain of superstars, save for rising keeper Asmir Begovic, surely not long for the confines of Stoke City. The “Minister of Defence” has no serious rival for the gloves. In front of him the only real veteran is captain Emir Spahic, with 72 caps. A peripatetic club career, typical of the experience of the average Bosnian pro, has come good towards its end for Spahic with first-team roles at Sevilla and now Leverkusen. Alongside him we are likely to see fellow Bundesliga campaigner Ermin Bicakcic, although the coach has recently chosen to blood young Toni Sunjic. Ognjen Vranjes is another option. On the left it looks like the only real option is 20-year-old Sead Kolasinac, a Schalke fullback of grit beyond his years who has won the odd duel with Arjen Robben. At right back, Susic will pick from Addija Vrsajeviv or slight favourite Mensur Mujdza. If the almost literally impossible happens, and all of Susic’s defensive middlemen are struck down by injury, then it’s reassuring to know that Vrsajeviv and Mujdza can also both play in that position too.

It's fairly clear what Bosnia’s strengths and weaknesses are; theirs is not a “balanced” squad. A limited number of high quality attacking players combine with a bewilderingly large selection of less well-known defensive personnel. There is some quality at the back, especially in Begovic and Spahic, but less than would be ideal. Behind the stars, the Bosnian second string features a lot of players who ply their daily trade a long way from the cutting edge of club football, with the further reaches of the Turkish league especially well represented.
On the front foot, Bosnia have what it takes to hurt anyone in this group, and that most definitely includes Argentina. What they are not however, given their lack of pace, is a formidable counter-attacking side. Bosnia like to have possession and to use it. This may be a problem against Argentina in particular, and indeed, a recent friendly between the two teams went 2-0 against the Europeans. Susic has so far shown little sign of being one of the game’s great tactical innovators, but he will need to get his thinking cap on to enable Bosnia to compete against sides who can keep the ball off them and, to a lesser extent, to cope with the sweltering conditions. The lone-striker option with Pjanic sitting deep is definitely an option, but will require the wide men to provide an outlet. Even then, it’s hard to see Bosnia getting anything off Argentina save by sitting back, somehow surviving the onslaught, and maybe nicking something at a set piece; on that point it’s good to note that they have some old-school Balkan-style dead-ball sorcerers in the team in Pjanic, Salihovic and Misimovic. More optimistically, however, it’s entirely feasible that Bosnia could be too much for Nigeria and Iran.
Strengths: Two sharp strikers, in good form; creativity; ability to manipulate possession and pace; good keeper; sense of destiny.
Weaknesses: Shortage of top quality personnel especially in defence; unbalanced squad; lack of pace; fairly inflexible coach.
Young player to watch: Part of the joy of watching Bosnia is going to be watching quality players who are unknown despite their advancing years, like Misimovic. But the spiky Kolasinac is an easy player to like, and if Bosnia exceed expectations then it may be that someone like Visca or Hajrovic hits form in the attacking third.

Verdict: We marginally prefer the Bosnians to the Nigerians as second qualifiers. Recent friendly wins against Cote d’Ivoire (2-1) and Mexico (1-0 in Chicago) suggest that Bosnia can hold their own against mobility and pace and African and Latin American styles. Like many attacking sides Bosnia will live or die by their confidence levels; the opening game against Argentina is key and if they avoid humiliation then the second round or beyond is feasible.



Will Gucci bag a goal or two?
Iran had a solid run in qualifying to get to Brazil, edging out South Korea for first place in their qualifying group, with a style based mainly on tight defending. Typically, a 1-0 away win over the Koreans in Ulsan was what saw them home. Their squad balances a lot of domestically-based talent with a smattering of players from around the European leagues, though few of the latter are household names; Fulham forward Ashkhan Dejagah will be the best known to many fans. It’s hard to see Iran having enough in attack to really make waves in this group so their chances of causing an upset , or even progressing, rest on that steely defence.
At the back there’s uncertainty between the sticks, with no clear first choice among three fairly inexperienced alternatives. German-born Daniel Davari has had the highest-level club career to date, with Braunschweig in the Bundesliga, but he may lose out to the more experienced Rahman Ahmadi who showed good form in the qualifying campaign. Ahmadi looks like the natural first choice but Alireza Haghighi has also been given a run in recent friendlies. In front there’s little doubt about Jalal Hosseini’s starting spot; at 32 and with 81 caps, the centre-half’s experience will be crucial. Alongside him will feature one of Pejman Montazeri, who has recently moved to Umm-Salal of Qatar, or Hossein Manini of domestic giants Persepolis. On the left there has been some rotation of late but it’s likely that Hashem Beikzadeh will start. At right back there is a choice; the established, and very attacking, option is Khosro Heydari, but there’s also the possibility of using the Iranian-American Mehrdad Beitashour (also known by his Anglophone given name, Steven). Heydari, strong and bustling, can play anywhere on the right hand side, so the choice will largely be tactical. Coach Carlos Quieroz has brought plenty of backup in the form of centre-backs  Amir Hossein Sadeqi and Ahmad Alenemeh (the latter something of a long-range goal specialist), young utility man Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh and fullback Mehrdad Pooladi. All in all there’s a good and experienced unit at the back although it’s getting on – unless Beitashour plays, none of the likely first choices is under 30.
Experience also reigns in the middle of the park where Quieroz seems likely to play a Manchester-United-style busy midfield twosome. Anchor man Andranik Teymourian, possibly the only former Barnsley player at the World Cup (but correct us if we’re wrong), is likely to play alongside captain Javad Nekounam, a more attacking presence. These two (aged 31 and 33 respectively) may be the oldest central midfield in the tournament that isn’t Greek, but they carried Iran admirably through qualifying and, in a team that seems likely to represent the last hurrah of a famous generation, they’ll probably start. Also likely to get feature, however, is the emergent Reza Haghighi (not to be confused with goalkeeper Alireza) who has played his way into contention in the last year. Perma-backup man Ghasem Haddadifar also travels as does defender/midfielder Ehsan Hajsafy, a utility man who’s already hugely experienced at 24 (with 62 caps) but who doesn’t seem to have a natural place in the starting lineup. Quieroz does like to chop and change personnel a bit, especially with Nekounam and Teymourian ageing, so the backups may get plenty of game time. Out wide, the key man in a somewhat underpowered attacking midfield is Dejagah, who can cause plenty of damage cutting in from either wing but is likely to start on the left. His shooting from the edge of the box will be a major goal threat; despite his profile in Europe, however, he is not an especially experienced international, with 11 caps. Then there is the up-and-coming Bakhtiar Rahmani, an attacking midfielder with a Beckham-style free kick or cross on him. He may be a contender for the right hand side or for an advanced slot in the centre of midfield. A more established choice on the right would be Masoud Shojaei, now with six years in Spain behind him. Heydari can also play here however, and Quieroz has rotated in other choices from central midfield too.
Iran could play either a lone centre-forward with a withdrawn no.10 behind, or a traditional strike partnership. Either way, Reza Ghoochannejad is likely to feature, given his stunning form so far in international football (10 goals in 14 games). Nicknamed “Gucci” in Iran (and possibly “Graham” by English cricket fans with an unusual level of interest in Iranian football), he is quick off the mark and fond of shooting first time. Ghoochannejad has not played a huge number of club games for someone his age (26), and his club goalscoring has tailed off since he stepped up from the Belgian second division; it remains to see whether he’s purely a qualifying rabbit-slayer, or the real deal. Either way, a lot of expectation rests on his shoulders. The only other recognised centre-forward in the final squad is Karim Ansarifard, a 24 year-old who may partner Ghoochannejad (making the attack the only youthful part of the team). Alternatively, at no.10 we may see Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who likes to run the ball, or we may see Shojaei or Rahmani.
This is likely to prove the peak of a footballing cycle in Iran, with an entire generation of players now at, or maybe just passing, their peak; it’ll also be a sweet moment for experienced coach Quieroz. who's 61. Expectations are therefore high. The decisive question is whether the Iranian defence will be able to maintain its robust form from qualifying; recent qualifiers against mediocre opposition suggest Iran still know how to marshall a shut-out, but Argentina will be a different matter entirely. Iran will probably fall short at that level, but their back line may well have what it takes to subdue Nigeria’s limited attack, and we’d give them a chance against the Bosnians too. Scoring goals, however, looks to be a problem, and Iran have recently fired blanks against Montenegro and Belarus. Unless Ghoochannejad steps up, which is not a given, then the main goal threat will come from the edge of the box; the midfield lacks craft but Nekouman, Dejagah, Jahanbakhsh and Rahmani can shoot. Iran are reckoned by many the weakest team in this group, but a lot of that is due to the unfamiliarity of their players; we wouldn’t put them far behind Nigeria.
Strengths: Solid defence; experience throughout; a good “spine” especially in Nekounam, Teymourian and Hosseini; genuine threat from Dejagah and a confident young striker in Ghoochannejad.

Weaknesses: Ageing, and the younger elements are unproven; not much pace; fairly serious lack of goal threat.

Young player to watch: Gucci.

Verdict: Not especially likely to get out of this group, but more than just a nuisance. If they get a result against Nigeria Iran will be well set, but on the whole, we don’t think they have the firepower to qualify.


World class? Mba
Super Eagles! Fans of a certain age will have a fondness for Nigeria based on memories of their swashbuckling 1990s sides, who twice made the second round of the world cup and probably should have gone further on both occasions. Those were the days. Eagles 2014 don’t quite look up to the lofty standards of the past, but to describe them as a shadow of their predecessors would be unfair. Nigeria have a chance of getting through this group although they’re probably third favourites.
Perceived as a counter-attacking side, Nigeria can certainly call on experience in defence. In goal, Vincent Enyeama is a veteran of two world cups (2002 and 2010). He returned to first-team football with Lille this season at just the right time for the World Cup, and was in commanding form in Ligue 1. In front of him are a pair of first-choice centre backs who are not yet established at major clubs, but have become fixtures for the national side. Godfrey Oboabona is virtually first name on the team sheet, and plays his club football for Caykur Rizespor in Turkey. He plays a game based on sound positioning and physical doggedness, and also uses the ball neatly, which explains reported interest from Arsenal. His partner in the centre is Kenneth Omeruo, a composed and technically solid youngster with 16 caps who has so far lived a peripatetic club existence on loan from Chelsea. These two make a youthful pairing (Oboabona is 23, Omeruo 20) but a talented one; their distribution of the ball is likely to be key to Nigeria’s quick-breaking style. On the left of the defensive four, Efe Ambrose of Celtic is first choice, a fairly traditional defensive fullback who is pacy and comfortable enough on the ball, but sometimes error-prone. On the other side, the individual star of the defence might have been Elderson, a highly mobile attacking full back who loves to overlap; but the recent Monaco signing dropped out injured after a recent friendly. Juwon Oshaniwa is the likely replacement, a relatively inexperienced 23-year-old who plays in Israel. Cross-happy but also able to cut inside, he is a wing-back in similar mould to Elderson, albeit not quite as electrically quick. There’s almost an excess of backup at centre-back in the shape of Premiership veteran Joseph Yobo (Nigeria’s most-capped international, with 96 appearances), Azubuike Egwuekwe (who lost his place to Omeruo during qualifying), and Kunle Odunlami, a youngster who starred in the 2014 African Cup of Nations and sports the excellent middle name Ebenezer.
Nigeria don’t possess a heroic midfield, but the key player in the centre is undoubtedly Jon Obi Mikel, much more of a playmaker for Nigeria than for Chelsea. Mikel can play; in this company he is an all-rounder whose Champions’ League and Europa League experience make him the lynchpin for Nigeria and the bearer of their hopes. Alongside Mikel, Lazio’s hard working, but not especially technical Ogenyi Onazi is likely to start on the right hand side of what will probably be a central midfield three. The remaining selection in this part of the field is something of a mystery as coach Stephen Keshi has omitted from his squad several players who played significant roles in qualifying, including Sunday Mba, Brown Ideye and John Ogu. On current form it looks likely that Keshi will choose to play the third player in front of Mikel and Onazi as a number ten or withdrawn striker; a forward may play this role with both striker Peter Odemwingie and winger Ahmed Musa potentially in the frame. Certainly, neither Reuben Gabriel nor young Ramon Azeez, both included in the final squad, is a recognized attacking midfielder. Wide men will probably be played outside and ahead of the central three, with Crystal Palace Eagle turned Nigerian Super Eagle, Victor Moses, probably playing on the right. He has established himself as a real goal threat for Nigeria. With Moses playing alongside someone like Odemwingie or Musa in the centre, Nigeria have plenty of capacity to run the ball, and this is likely to be a major feature of their play, especially on the break. Keshi is perhaps unlikely to be so bold as to play two out-and-out wingers though, so if Moses starts, expect to see the left wing held down by someone with a more circumspect style. It might be Ejike Uzoenyi, who can also play full-back, or it might be Azeez. Alternatively if young Michael Babatunde, a rookie left winger, gets a game then Onazi might be asked to hold the right flank.
At striker, the real question is whether Nigeria can develop their options for a change of style. Keshi is generally thought to favour a robust, traditional centre-forward ,and the man in possesson of shirt number 9, Emmanuel Emenike, fits the bill.  Emenike doesn't lack pace for a target man, and he can run the ball, but his overall style is not subtle. Nor is that of Shola Ameobi, a late arrival to international football who is blessed with strength and an excellent touch, but not pace. The widely-admired 24-year-old Michael Uchebo is also a target man; an inspired player of the back-to-goal game, he is less handy on the front foot and isn’t yet a heavy scorer at club level. If a change is required, there is always Odemwingie, but he’d be a quixotic choice as a lone striker; likelier is the cheekier style of Uche Nwofor, a quick footed and confident striker who plays for Venlo in the Netherlands. Whichever of Keshi’s strikers gets the nod, the fact is that none of them are especially reliable goal-getters. This makes it likely that Nigeria will continue to look to their no.9 as a hold-up man, bringing in onrushing players from deep such as Moses, Musa or Odemwingie. If anyone does let off rockets up front, it may be Nwofor.
Pundits often continue to write about African football as if all that nation’s countries and teams can be summarized as one. Nigeria, a punchy counter-attacking unit who rely quite heavily on a solid defence and have few flair players, do not fulfill many stereotypes. One thing to note is that they are a young side, one of the youngest at the world cup; of the likely starters, only Enyeama and possibly Odemwingie are over 27. But there is nonetheless plenty of experience, and none of the true rookies Keshi has brought in – such as Babatunde or Azeez – is likely to be over-exposed. The best of this Nigerian generation are just establishing themselves with European clubs, often second-tier ones, and the World Cup will be a major stage for them. Pace at the back means that the Super Eagles have some chance of shackling Argentina, but in all likelihood they'll be duking it out with the Bosnians for second place. Their issue is that the Bosnian attack will not play to their strengths; Bosnia have no pace, and know it, so will attack through the centre and throw everything Dzeko, Pjanic and Ibisevic can offer (which is quite a lot) at Nigeria’s young centre-backs. The Bosnian defence, on the other hand, will be more comfortable playing against the physical Emenike or Ameobi than against more mobile strikers – again, Nwofor may offer something different. A lot will come down to whether Nigeria’s energetic but rather artless midfield can boss Bosnia’s more technical, but less physical unit.
Strengths: Youthful promise blends with tournament experience; good defence that didn’t concede easily in qualifying or in recent friendlies; pace on the break; genuine Champions’ League lass in Mikel.

Weaknesses: Lack of top quality or, at least, of players with track records at top clubs; workmanlike midfield; few flair players; goal-shy forwards.

Young player to watch: Several, in truth, but we’ll go for Omeruo; this could be his breakthrough and if he has a good tournament, Chelsea will start running out of excuses not to play him.

Verdict:  We marginally prefer Bosnia on the grounds of greater finesse, but this is one of the World Cup’s most engrossing battles for second.

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