Faced with a daunting opener against Argentina and their world-class attacking line-up, Nigeria will be relying on what has been a fairly unsettled defence to keep their heads above water in Sunday's high-pressure Group B clash at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park.
Although Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito and other massive talents will be prowling the frontline for the two-time world champions, current FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has of course been singled out as the main dangerman. To stop the Barcelona superstar, there is no doubt that the Super Eagles defence will have to be at their very best.
Unfortunately for coach Lars Lagerback, Nigeria’s two most experienced central defenders, Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu, saw very little action for their English clubs in the second half of this season, so their form and fitness are open to question. There is speculation that the two 29-year-olds will start on the bench in what is surely their toughest test in a group that also includes Korea Republic and Greece.
When we don’t have the ball, we have to defend. And if the opponents are better then we have to defend more than we attack.
Yobo and Shittu’s struggles have opened the door for a pair of lesser-known players who could step into the breach against Messi and Co. At just 21 years old and with only six caps, Dele Adeleye is a long-shot to win a place in the starting XI, although his height and power make him a strong option against more direct teams like the Greeks. The other option is Rabiu Afolabi, who was Lagerback’s most surprising inclusion in his 23-man squad, but could be the key figure for the west Africans as they try to halt the Argentinian juggernaut.
Although the 30-year-old made his international debut way back in 2000, he has amassed less than 20 international appearances, and failed to feature even once for previous coach Shaibu Amodu. However, a good season with Red Bull Salzburg put Afolabi back on the map, and Lagerback looks set to put his faith in the journeyman, who has played previously for Sochaux, Napoli and clubs in Belgium and Austria.
Afolabi told FIFA that he had never played against Messi, but had watched in amazement like the rest of the world at the Barcelona star's form in this past season. “I’ve watched him playing on TV a bit and I think he’s a phenomenal player,” he said from Nigeria’s camp outside of Durban in Richard's Bay. “There is no doubt, this player is a world class player.” But he said the Super Eagles were not in any way overwhelmed by the task at hand. “In our own side, we have a lot of good players, world-class players, too. So I think there is not any big difference between Argentina and Nigeria,” he said.
Lagerback took pains to say that his team would not be planning any special marking for Messi, saying: "We are playing Argentina, not Messi. So there will be no player given the special job to mark him.” But Afolabi insisted that the back-line had a scheme in mind for controlling the diminutive forward. “We’ve got a plan,” he said. “I can’t really reveal this type of thing, but we’ve got a plan; a very good plan.”
The former Sweden coach has reportedly been spending a lot of time in training isolating defensive match-ups and working with his players. But he also has been stressing defending in numbers. “When you play really good teams like Argentina with a lot of really good individuals, you have to have a very good team performance, otherwise you don’t win,” he told FIFA. “But for me football is a combination between the individual skills you have in the team and to try to organise the team as good as possible.
“When we have the ball we want to attack as much as possible, but of course with brains. But when we don’t have the ball, we have to defend. And if the opponents are better, then we have to defend more than we attack.”