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‘Nigeria needs two quality strikers to really become world class’

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Getting to the World Cup is the dream of many nations achieved by only a few countries. It is a feat worthy of praise, but being among the last 16 teams in the competition is only a right reserved for well-heeled teams out of the 32 that entered the competition. That was the verdict of two of the finest players ever to grace the World Cup, Hernan Crespo of Argentina, and Peter Schmeichel of Denmark.

Super Eagles’ former star, Efan Ekoku, also believes that for a team to advance to the later stages of the World Cup, it must have battle-hardened stars ready to make sacrifices for the collective good.Sadly, that was what the Super Eagles lacked at the on-going FIFA World Cup, as the next round commences.

In the wake of Nigeria’s painful exit from the World Cup, many emotionally deflated Super Eagles’ fans accused Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, of conniving with Argentina to shorten Eagles passage to the second round of the competition by denying them a penalty that would have sealed victory over the La Albiceleste.

Only a few blamed Nigeria’s strikers for their inability to make hay with the numerous chances that fell their way. Even the kindergarten defending exhibited by some of the players was overlooked in the post-mortem of the game in which Nigeria needed only a draw to survive.Crespo, Schmeichel and Ekoku were at various times important parts of their countries’ campaign at the World Cup and so know the demands the competition makes on those expected to score goals for their countries.

Reacting to his country’s 2-1 win over Nigeria in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, Crespo said Argentina was lucky to escape the ignominy of a first round exit, adding that Nigeria would have won the game if it had converted its chances. He also acknowledged the enormous pressure playing for Argentina exert on players, saying only a few stars excel under the situation.

Goals win matches and Argentina scored two fantastic ones to overcome the Nigerian challenge.He acknowledged that five-time world player of the year and Argentina’s all-time top scorer, Lionel Messi often appear to shoulder most of that pressure, but he also said every player wearing the blue and white stripes is under the same demand from the football-mad nation.

“The pressure is the same, it’s not just him but for all the players. What happened yesterday wasn’t normal, when you watch so many players crying after the match, that means that it was an enormous pressure,” Crespo said after the game against Nigeria.He also acknowledges that despite Messi’s talent he cannot win matches all by himself. A team needs the sum total of its parts to pull in the same direction, else it will not achieve its objectives, he added. “This is something the Argentines and the rest of his teammates must understand. He is phenomenal if you put him in the right conditions, like he does at Barcelona. Any other way and he tries.”

Against Nigeria, it was a little different because the other players put in their own shift, he said adding that to succeed against France, Argentina manager, Jorge Sampaoli has to find a way to get the best out of Messi, just like Barcelona does by getting him one-on-one with his marker.“This is so, so that Leo can make the difference. However, Argentina’s matches all follow the same script: Messi against everyone and his teammates just stand watching.”

To Crespo, successful teams are those sides that have everything in equal measure. “The defenders, midfielders and strikers must be ready to do their jobs,” he said.“We surely aren’t the favourites, we have a team of good players, but so do France, and they played with the same coach for a long time, and so they already have an identity. Argentina doesn’t,” Crespo said.Schmeichel, who was in goal for Denmark when the 1996 European champions defeated Nigeria 4-1 at the 1998 edition of the competition in France, is the host for an English television channel, RT, at the on-going World Cup.

Aside the controversy over the ball that touched Argentine defender, Marcos Rojo, in the second half of the Group D match, the former Manchester United goalkeeper said poor marksmanship ruined Nigeria. He added that when the strikers fail to score goals, it becomes difficult for any team to win games.

Brazil, unlike Nigeria, has moved to the second round stage, but the record title holders, according to Schmeichel achieved the feat in spite of the indifference of their star, striker, Neymar. Brazil is a team solid in all the departments, he said.Schmeichel praised Brazil’s manager, Tite for transforming his team into a compact unit able to build attacks from defense, rather than previous incarnations reliant on flair players.

“If people think this is the Brazil of old, with all the flair and a lot of characters who do things that you never see, or you never see footballers do, then don’t watch Brazil, that’s not the team they are any more – very very solid, they are difficult to break down,” Schmeichel said.Ekoku, who dismissed claims that the referee aided Nigeria’s failure in Russia, said, “Missed chances for Nigeria cost the Super Eagles. Rojo’s hand ball not deliberate, so right decision. If the ball is diverted away from Ighalo and a chance is taken, then more chance of a pen,” Ekoku, who was in Nigeria’s 1994 World Cup squad, said in a tweet after the game.

The correctness of the referee’s decision not to award a penalty to Nigeria following Rojo’s handball is now inconsequential since the Super Eagles have left the competition. But to avoid further controversy, FIFA has moved to ensure the system is near perfect in subsequent games.On Thursday, VAR officials were told to look out for certain incidents at the World Cup following criticism about unpunished infringements, including off-the-ball shirt-pulling.

England’s Harry Kane and Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic both appeared to be held in the box in group-stage matches.“You might have appreciated there were some incidents that suddenly disappeared,” said referees committee chairman, Pierluigi Collina.“It’s impossible to be right from the start. We intervened and fine-tuned the system,” he said.

A total of 335 incidents were checked during the group stage – nearly seven per game – with 14 on-field reviews made by referees and three reviews made by the VAR team on factual decisions.Referees called 95 per cent of incidents correctly without VAR, but the system – which is being used for the first time at a major international tournament at Russia 2018 – improved that success rate to 99.3 per cent.“We have always said that VAR doesn’t mean perfection – there could still be the wrong interpretation or a mistake – but I think you would agree that 99.3 per cent is very close to perfection,” added Collina.


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