x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Time to give John Mikel Obi a free rein — Iran v Nigeria takeaways

It may seem a strange concept considering his role at Chelsea, but the Nigeria midfielder is his national team’s creator-in-chief. Mikel wears the No 10 for the Africans, yet for the majority of the Iran tussle he played on leash.

Emmanuel Emenike failed to excel in Nigeria’s attack against Iran. Jewel Samad / AFP Photo
Emmanuel Emenike failed to excel in Nigeria’s attack against Iran. Jewel Samad / AFP Photo

CURITIBA // Well, that was not what was expected. Given the deluge of goals at this Fifa World Cup, Nigeria’s Group F clash with Iran in Curitiba was supposed to follow suit, yet a lacklustre 0-0 draw was played out at the Arena da Baixada.

With Argentina defeating Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-1 the previous day, the pool is taking the anticipated path, and a battle for second place appears poised to assume the main focus. That placed greater emphasis on Monday’s encounter in Curitiba, then, yet both sides contributed little. Here, we look at three pointers from the stalemate.

John Mikel Obi needs to live up to his status

It may seem a strange concept considering his role at Chelsea, but the Nigeria midfielder is his national team’s creator-in-chief. Mikel wears the No 10 for the Africans, yet for the majority of the Iran tussle he played on leash. If entrusted to pull the strings, he needs to be more adventurous. Too many times at the Arena da Baixada, Mikel collected the ball from defence — he patrolled the space in front of the Nigerian back line — and passed laterally. In his apparent brief as playmaker, he should be influencing proceedings higher up the pitch.

After all, before the fixture Mikel referenced how he must be a leader on the pitch, but against Iran he appeared too content to let the game pass him by. There were glimpses of his prowess, namely a few times he jinxed past an opponent, and he clearly is the player his teammates look to. However, he rarely got forward. His goal against Uruguay in last summer’s Confederations Cup illustrated what Mikel can do when in advanced areas; Stephen Keshi, his coach, needs to reinforce that.

Granted, the Iranians are difficult to break down, but sterner tests await. Against Bosnia on Saturday, and Argentina on June 25, Nigeria require someone to show a bit of imagination, to conjure something from nothing. It is assumed Mikel is that guy. Judging by his World Cup debut performance, though, the Africans may be better off seeking an alternative.

Carlos Queiroz has done well with Iran, but it was an opportunity missed

Judging by the vocal support Iran enjoyed in Curitiba, the country is obviously happy just to be in attendance at the finals. It has been a while, remember, and the last time was not too fun to watch. In 2006, one of their most naturally talented teams failed to record a victory, and finished bottom of their group.

Eight years on, Iran arrived in Brazil as Asia’s top-ranked side, but it was still anticipated that they would struggle. Preparations had been less than ideal, and they do not have any real standout players. Togetherness and teamwork was stressed.

In Queiroz, they have a coach of particular pedigree, who has managed matters on and off the pitch with aplomb. Yet there was the sense against Nigeria that his team could have taken the match to their opponents. Iran are Group F’s underdogs, robust and regimented, but this is the World Cup. If the remit was to collect a couple of points and some plaudits, then perhaps they will be content to carry on as they did on Monday. Iran simply do not have the resources their rivals enjoy, but Nigeria were there to be beaten. There were a couple of half chances, although evidently Iran were set out to stifle. Argentina and Bosnia represent tougher opponents, but would it not be nice for Queiroz just to loosen the belt? This World Cup has been a joy thus far; Iran could add to the spectacle. A little bit more daring, and they might even surprise.

Peter Odemwingie must start for Nigeria

Introduced with 20 minutes remaining, the Stoke City forward livened a pretty staid affair. Odemwingie is maybe best known for last year’s botched transfer to Queens Park Rangers, but he is an international of substantial experience. With more than 60 caps, the frontman can form the focus of Nigeria’s attack, but instead Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike were chosen to start against Iran. Neither excelled, with Moses substituted early into the second half with what looked to be an injury.

Odemwingie had to wait even longer to get his opportunity, but within minutes of replacing Ramon Azeez he did enough to merit a starting berth. Always lively, Odemwingie seemed the one Nigerian who realised the importance of gaining an opening win, and he provided the side with real impetus. On 82 minutes, he controlled on the chest a pass from Mikel and sent a sublime volley narrowly wide of the Iranian goal. The referee claimed Odemwingie had handballed; nevertheless, he had supplied the game’s most exciting moment. If Moses is injured, Odemwingie should begin Thursday’s scrap with Bosnia. In fact, no matter Moses’s fitness, Odemwingie should start. Nigeria would be all the better for it.

jmcauley@thenational.ae