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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Team preview: Nigeria

By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com

This is not your father's Nigerian team. The Super Eagles have historically been known as an attack-happy side that takes a rather nonchalant approach toward defense. But the back four and goalkeeper may be the strength of this edition, which will take the goals where it can get them in a tight Group B.

The Super Eagles needed a late comeback on the last day of qualifying just to get to the World Cup, edging out Tunisia. Nigeria is nevertheless among the favorites among African teams to advance, having been placed in what is perceived to be an accessible group. But it's tough to tell what to expect from the Super Eagles. You can throw the form book -- which has been inconclusive over the past two years at any rate -- out the window, with the introduction of a new coach this year.

Coach: Lars Lagerback

The Swede replaced local Shaibu Amodu after the African Cup of Nations, after spending the last 20 years with the Swedish national team, including nearly a decade as head coach. In that role, he coached in the last two World Cups, before failing to qualify Sweden for 2010. Through late May, Lagerback had presided over just one game for the Super Eagles, with mostly Nigeria-based players who won't figure at the World Cup. So it's hard to know which players he might prefer in South Africa.

Style of play

The Super Eagles' strength this time around is at the core. They are most suited to a 4-3-3, though Lagerback may opt for a more traditional 4-4-2, moving one of his more versatile forwards to wide midfield. Don't expect too much flair from the Nigerians this year -- they are strong but straight-forward in the midfield, and generally practical but not flashy up front, with wing play a possible exception.

Players to watch

1. Nwankwo Kanu. The two-time African player of the year is an icon continent wide and still has some gas left in the tank for both club and country. Such a wily veteran is likely to have something to say about the outcome in what should be a tight race for second in Group B.

2. Obafemi Martins. One of the more creative forces in the Nigerian attack, the Wolfsburg striker can score in sneaky ways and tends to pop up unexpectedly, calling on his pace to forge chances and help his strike mates get open looks on goal.

3. Vincent Enyeama. Goals are not likely to come cheaply in Group B, and this shot-stopper will be keen to make sure no easy ones are scored on the Super Eagles. He is the best keeper the Nigerians have had in quite a while, and his play will be a deciding factor.

Who's hot

Kalu Uche. From his midfield spot, Uche managed an impressive nine goals in 28 games this season for Spanish side Almeria.

Who's not

Danny Shittu. The central defender has spent two years buried on the bench at Bolton but may be called on heavily after Lagerback cut three of his defensive competitors.

Three key questions

1. Who will Lagerback pick? Lagerback has already passed on some players who were regulars under Amodu, and from back to front there are plenty of questions about which players he will favor.

2. Will the goals come? Against three strong group opponents, chances will be hard to come by. Nigeria is already a lower-octane version of the traditional Super Eagles and will have to be clinical up front -- something for which center forward Ayegbeni Yakubu, for one, has not always been known.

3. What is the Super Eagles' upside? Doubts aside, Nigeria has the ingredients to produce some quality soccer: a potentially solid defense and multiple options in the offensive arsenal. Beyond Argentina, the group is evenly matched, but not impossibly challenging. If the Super Eagles' luck holds, they could get further than many suspect.

Projected lineup

G Vincent Enyeama, Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israel)
D Chidi Odiah, CSKA Moscow (Russia)
D Joseph Yobo, Everton (England)
D Rabiu Afolabi, Salzburg (Austria)
D Taye Taiwo, Olympique Marseille (France)
M Sani Kaita, Alania Vladikavkaz (Russia)
M John Obi Mikel, Chelsea (England)
M Kalu Uche, Almeria (Spain)
F Peter Odemwingie, Lokomotiv Moscow (Russia)
F Obafemi Martins, VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)
F Ayegbeni Yakubu, Everton (England)