Friday, June 24, 2016

'THE GROUP' is here: Nigeria in tough path to Russia

The truth is that based on Nigeria's seeding for the African qualifiers to the World Cup, Nigeria was never going to have an easy path to the 2018 World Cup. However, of teams in Pot 2, Egypt and Cape Verde received arguably more difficult groups with teams averaging 54.75 and 55.75 FIFA ranking respectively. Nigeria's Group B has an average rank of 57.50. Yes, by reputation the Nigeria's Group B is obviously the most difficult and has been widely labelled the "Group of Death." However, if you take the most current FIFA ranking of teams, it is not the most difficult. Bear in mind that this is perhaps the toughest ever qualifiers for the World Cup involving African teams. Only two of the Top 20 African teams, using FIFA rankings, did not make it to this stage and only two -- Gabon and Libya  --made it! Of the teams, Libya ranks outside the Top 100 in the world. Thus, no group was going to be easy.
Nigeria's group has an average FIFA ranking of 57.50. Group A average is 67.75 (primarily because of Libya's low rank), Group C is 60.0, Group D is 55.75, and Group E 54.75.  Ultimately, the draws today all but confirm the belief that the path to the World Cup finals will not be easy. What is left is for the on-field contests to confirm what the belief is. The contests begin in October and Nigeria must now confront Algeria, Cameroon, and Zambia in Group B.

None of Nigeria's Group B opponents is new to Nigeria. The Super Eagles of Nigeria have confronted each of their qualification group opponents multiple times in the past. The results of those previous contests appear on Table 1. The results indicate that Nigeria has actually performed better against each of those teams in recent times. However, let us bear in mind that even though Nigeria has beaten Algeria in five of their last six encounters, both teams have not met since 2010. Nigeria has also beaten Cameroon five out of their last six encounters, and have knot lost to Zambia in their last six meetings.

What Lies Ahead?
Unfortunately, I do not have a magic wand to look into the future. However, one strongly believes the past helps us to analyze possible outcomes of these upcoming fixtures. Thus, this piece reviews the experience of the Super Eagles players, the team's home/away performance in competitive games since the last World Cup finals in 2014, and the team's performance in competitive games against African teams ranked in FIFA's Top 50 since the World Cup finals of 2014.

Team Experience
Nigeria, unfortunately, finds itself in an interminable rebuilding against teams that are largely settled and experienced. If Nigeria plans to go into these qualifiers with largely the team called up by Coach Salisu Yusuf in the last two internationals then we have a team where 60% of the players have made less than 10 appearances for the national team. As much as 36% of the more experienced players have played in 15 games or less. See Table 2. 

Nigeria's Recent Results in Competitive Games 
Nevertheless, Nigeria is capable of beating any of the top African teams. But that is increasingly becoming difficult. In Nigeria's competitive away games since the 2014 World Cup, it has won only one of six games, drawing three and losing two (see Figure 1). Yet, it is the ability to win these away games that will determine who goes to Russia in 2018 from this group.

At home, Nigeria has also stumbled in recent times (See Figure 2). This is quite unusual for Nigeria. Previously, it was a sure bet that Nigeria will win at home, particularly during the great years in the 1990s. In Nigeria's competitive games at home since the 2014 World Cup, it has won only 50% of those. It has won three of six games, losing one, and drawing two.

Results Against Teams Ranked in Top 90
Finally, take a look at the FIFA ranking of each of Nigeria's opponents in the announced qualifying group. Algeria is 31, Nigeria is 57, Cameroon is 59, and Zambia is 83. Nigeria's results against teams ranked in the Top 90 since the 2014 World Cup is shown on Figure 3. It is shocking. Nigeria has only one win in six games (home and away) against such teams and that came away to Congo Republic (ranked #59 at the time) in a Nations Cup qualifier. Besides that result, Nigeria's wins in competitive encounters have only come against teams ranked 100 or above. None of Nigeria's group opponents is ranked lower than 83. 

Since 2014 World Cup, Nigeria has played only one African team competitively, that is ranked as high as 50. That game ended in a home loss 2-3 to Congo Republic (ranked #48 at the time).