FOR YEARS THIS WAS THE SCOUTING REPORT ON NIGERIA: PLENTY OF TALENT AND ATHLETICISM, NOT MUCH DEFENDING, EVEN LESS TACTICAL COHESION AND A TENDENCY TO self-destruct when it really mattered. (For instance, it lost to Italy in the second round of the 1994 World Cup despite holding a man advantage, and beating Spain in the group stage in '98 only to be wiped out by Denmark 4-1 in the second round.) Shaibu Amodu, who took over as the Super Eagles' boss in 2008, tried to change all that, turning Nigeria into a team predicated on defense and ball control. But a leopard doesn't easily change its spots, and following a lackluster Africa Cup of Nations, Amodu was relieved of his duties and replaced with former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback, whose five-month contract screams, "Quick fix!"
It remains to be seen whether the critics who crucified Amodu for abandoning Nigeria's cavalier tradition for a defensive game will show more patience with Lagerback, who is not exactly known as a guru of attacking soccer. But unlike Amodu, Lagerback is a foreigner in Nigeria and therefore perhaps a bit shielded from the wrath of hyperdemanding Super Eagles fans. (Familiarity does, after all, breed contempt.)
Lagerback has not had much time to work with this set of players, but it appears that he'd be wise to ignore the critics and stick with Amodu's game plan. Nigeria's strength is at the back; gone are both the world-class strikers (Rashidi Yekini and Daniel Amokachi) and the creative play-maker (Jay-Jay Okocha) of yesteryear. Instead, these Super Eagles are all about power, speed and athleticism, qualities that best lend themselves to more measured counterattacking tactics. Lagerback's quandary is that if he ignores the critics, he's not likely to be allowed to stick around very long.
The man Premier League fans call the Yak is the kind of center forward opponents hate to play against. Big, brawny and difficult to stop once he gets up a head of steam, Everton's Yakubu Aiyegbeni is a handful for any central defense. Problem is, he's also injury-prone and has a tendency to disappear in big games. Obafemi Martins is lightning-quick and a constant goal-scoring threat, although he has struggled to get much playing time this season with his club, Wolfsburg. The elegant if maddeningly inconsistent Peter Odemwingie (whose mother is Russian and father Nigerian, and who was born in Uzbekistan) rounds out the likely attacking trio, though Lagerback can also call upon speed merchants such as Victor Obinna and Chinedu Obasi. Expect 6' 6" fan favorite Nwankwo Kanu, still the official team captain, to surface late in games despite injuries that make him old at 33 and help explain why he usually plays from a standstill position.
At 18 John Obi Mikel was so highly regarded in the English Premier League that he was the subject of a bizarre transfer dispute between Chelsea and Manchester United involving tens of millions of dollars, death threats and the player hiding at a friend's house while agents sorted out his future. Now 22, Mikel has yet to live up to his potential but is nevertheless the leader of this midfield, which includes the steady if unspectacular workhorses Seyi Olofinjana, Kalu Uche and Ayila Yussuf.
Nigeria has something it hasn't had in years: a first-class goalkeeper in Vincent Enyeama. He's small, at 6' 1", which may explain why he never got a shot in a big league—he has played in Israel since 2006—but he's a solid shot stopper and an emotional leader. Joseph Yobo, provided he stays injury-free, leads the back four alongside Obinna Nwaneri. The fullbacks, if fit, are both top-drawer. Chidi Odiah offers experience and athleticism on the right, while Taye Taiwo is a marauding left back blessed with a terrifying long-range shot.