Fresh off a demoralising loss to Greece, Nigeria – without a point from their first two matches in South Africa – are still in with a faint shout of going through as they enter their Group B decider against Korea Republic.
"It's a cup final for us" is the assessment of cultured holding midfielder Dickson Etuhu, who has become the west African team's unofficial spokesman of late. Born in Kano State in the north of Nigeria, Etuhu moved with his parents to England at an early age and the Pidgin English heard around the team’s base camp is in stark contrast to his rather prim London accent. "This is a must-win for us. We're not happy about the way things have gone so far, but we still have a chance and all we can do is focus on getting the result we need," he added exclusively to FIFA.com.
It will take more than just a victory to send the Super Eagles through to the knockout rounds for the first time since they won their group at France 1998. Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who has been "happy with the way the team has played in patches" knows fully well they will need section favourites and leaders Argentina to give them a little help as well, by fielding a strong team and beating Greece. "We can't control things like that," said Etuhu, calling rumours of dissention and unrest among the squad "totally baseless and invented".
Last time out against the Greeks, Nigeria looked in good shape to take the three points, only for it all to go horribly wrong. Taking the lead after 16 minutes from a Kalu Uche free-kick, the Eagles were in the driving seat and looked likely to hand Greece a second straight defeat. But an impetuous foul and subsequent straight red card for Sani Kaita 17 minutes later unbalanced the team and, having to play a man down for the final hour, they surrendered their lead, losing 2-1. "No one likes losing, or having zero points," the Fulham man continued. "But we're all professionals and we have to react like professionals."
It sets up an absolute make-or-break in the final Group B test of a side defeated in their opener by Argentina, whom Etuhu called "the best team I've ever played against". And the player, who was a crucial cog in the Fulham outfit that roared to the UEFA Europa League final last term, is expecting another tough encounter against the South Koreans on Tuesday in Durban. "You get nervous before every game, anyone who tells you different is lying," said the athletic, leggy destroyer. "But you've got to put those feelings aside because they don't help anything; we just need to focus and get the points we need to give us a chance."
Etuhu has made much of the focus on defence that Lagerback – in charge for only a short time prior to the finals here in South Africa – has introduced. "It's a new thing in Nigerian football to stay compact as a unit, but it's something the coach has drilled into us." That said, the Nigerians will need to get forward and produce at the other end against a notoriously well-drilled and cagey Korean outfit. "We're getting better and better,” Etuhu, who debuted for Eagles in 2007, concluded. “It might not be pretty, but we need to focus on the result. We'll need to go forward – we can't sit back."