Nigeria come into Brazil with as much international tournament experience in the last few years as any team in the world, having won the 2013 African Cup of Nations and subsequently playing in the 2013 Confederations Cup. These experiences gave manager Stephen Keshi, a former Super Eagle himself, more opportunity to test out new lineups, formations, and players. Keshi has been the manager since 2011, an eternal tenure for the average African manager, and will hope that the squad's continuity and experience could lead to a surprisingly deep run in the Cup.
Nigeria qualified for Brazil fairly comfortably, as they finished undefeated in their preliminary group of qualifying, and then dispatched Ethiopia over two legs by an aggregate score of 4-1. The Super Eagles were led by three goals from striker Emmanuel Emenike, though they only managed 11 total in their eight qualifying games.
Goalkeepers: Vincent Enyeama (Lille FC), Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Chigozie Agbim (Gombe United)
Defenders: Efe Ambrose (Celtic), Godfrey Oboabona (Rizespor), Azubuike Egwuekwe (Warri Wolves), Kenneth Omeruo (Middlesbrough), Juwon Oshaniwa (Ashdod FC), Joseph Yobo (Norwich City), Ebenezer Odunlami (Sunshine Stars)
Midfielders: John Mikel Obi (Chelsea), Ogenyi Onazi (SS Lazio), Ejike Uzoenyi (Enugu Rangers), Reuben Gabriel (Waasland-Beveren), Michael Uchebo (Cercle Brugge), Ramon Azeez (Almeria)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Shola Ameobi (Newcastle United), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce), Peter Odemwingie (Stoke City), Victor Moses (Liverpool), Uche Nwofor (Heerenveen), Michael Babatunde (FC Volyn Lutsk)
John Obi Mikel, Midfielder
Obi Mikel was an absolute revelation in Brazil last summer. Though he's used almost exclusively as a defensive midfielder for Chelsea, Nigerian manager Keshi decided to use his star in a more attacking role against some of the top teams in the world in Uruguay and Spain. Though Nigeria didn't win either of those games, Obi Mikel was by no means at fault.
For a guy known only as a midfield destroyer, he finished tied for 4th in key passes per game, only behind passing wizards like Xavi, and ahead of guys like Juan Mata and Andrea Pirlo. Obi Mikel was third in dribbles per game, ahead of guys like Neymar and Luis Suárez. He finished fourth in average number of passes per game, behind only Spain's trio of Xavi, Busquets, and Iniesta. That's damn good company.
If Nigeria have any chance at advancing to the knockout rounds, they'll need Obi Mikel to be in similar form. Though he only made 15 starts in all competitions for Chelsea this year, he managed an additional 16 substitute appearances, and comes into Brazil in good health.
Emmanuel Emenike, Forward
If Obi Mikel finds his 2013 form and is spraying passes all over the field, he'll need someone to put away those chances. That's pretty much all Emenike does for club and country. Though he's only 5'11", Emenike uses his speed to run circles around defenders, and is a surprisingly efficient passer, as evidenced by his 9 assists in 2013-2014 for his club team, Fenerbahçe in Turkey. He was Nigeria's leading scorer in the Cup of Nations and in qualifying, and has scored a goal for every two appearances he's made for his country.
Emenike—like seemingly every talented striker—is exceedingly temperamental. He was left off Nigeria's Confederations Cup squad after complaining that the team had ignored his preferences in leaving him off a friendly team as he was recovering from injury. He returned to the squad for the final qualifiers against Ethiopia, and promptly scored two goals in the first leg.
Nigeria has a sizable stable of athletic, quick forwards, but they don't have anyone with Emenike's pedigree when it comes to actually scoring goals. They'll need him to get in good positions and finish his limited chances if they'll hope to advance.
In the Confederations Cup and African qualifying, Keshi lined up his players in a 4-3-3 formation, taking advantage of Nigeria's speed on the flanks. Wingers like Victor Moses of Chelsea, and CSKA Moscow's Ahmed Musa are encouraged to get forward as much as possible, and Musa in particular possesses elite pace. Many believe that Nigeria's main strength is in its athleticism, though interestingly they finished 3rd in possession percentage and 2nd in passing accuracy at the Confederations Cup.
Contributing most to those impressive statistics is central midfielder Obi Mikel and 21-year-old Ogenyi Onazi of Lazio in Serie A, who is coming off a breakthrough year that saw him make 29 appearances in the league.
Though they were solid defensively in qualifying, Nigeria's weakness is playing against teams that will control the possession against them. Teams that are comfortable in possession will try to hold on to the ball, keep it away from Nigeria's speedy forwards, and pick apart the untested Nigerian backline, as Spain did in a comprehensive 3-0 victory last year. Fortunately Nigeria avoids Spain in their group this time around, but a team like Argentina should pose similar difficulties for the Super Eagles.
Depth is also a serious issue for this Nigeria squad. An injury to left back Elderson Echiejile forced him to pull out of the squad with a muscle tear, further weakening a suspect back line. Musa too is struggling with injury, and his absence caused the Super Eagles to play Peter Odemwingie in his place. Odemwingie's lack of any semblance of skill on the wing was a major factor in the US's controlling 2-1 victory over Nigeria last Saturday. If it were Musa running at suspect defensive players like DeMarcus Beasley instead, Nigeria might have been able to create more dangerous chances.
For reasonable Nigerian supporters, qualifying for the knockout stage would be considered a success. In order to do that, they're going to most likely have to beat Bosnia in their second game. If both Nigeria and Bosnia take care of business against group minnows Iran, and both lose to group favorites Argentina, it will come down to the result of the Bosnia game to decide second place in the group.
June 16, 3 p.m.: Iran vs. Nigeria at Arena de Baixada
June 21, 6 p.m.: Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina at Arena Pantanal
June 25, noon: Nigeria vs. Argentina at Estadia Beira-Rio
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty