By Tony Ubani
The pace and power of the Super Eagles attack will give France’s defense its biggest test of the World Cup so far when they meet in Monday’s round of 16 match.
Although France kept two clean sheets in the group stage — against Honduras and Ecuador — the variety in the African champion’s forward line offers a much stiffer proposition, and it has already caused problems for bigger teams than France.
Winger Ahmed Musa will be closely marked after scoring both goals in a 3-2 loss to Argentina. His speed was a constant threat and he will look to expose the space behind France’s fullbacks — who are given license to push up in coach Didier Deschamps’ attack-minded team.
Emmanuel Emenike is a bustling, powerful striker, and forward Peter Osaze Odemwingie has the technical ability to unlock defenses and has shown in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion and Stoke that he is also a sharp finisher.
“They’re a good team, they caused Argentina problems. They are powerful, quick up front and hardworking in midfield,” said France midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who is set to return to the side following suspension. “They play with a lot of energy.”
It will be Nigeria’s first knockout game at a World Cup since 1998 — the year France won the tournament as host — and preparations have hardly been ideal, with Thursday’s training session canceled amid reports of a pay dispute. But the players were back on training terms on Friday evening and they look ready to play.
Four years ago, it was France that was in turmoil before its final group game after going on strike at training.
The official line for why Nigeria didn’t turn up for the practice was that a team meeting ran too long, but reports said players were demanding bonuses owed to them. Fellow West African teams Cameroon and Ghana both had their campaigns disrupted by pay disputes.
Bacary Sagna is battling with Mathieu Debuchy for the right back slot and center half Mamadou Sakho is struggling for fitness with a left hamstring injury. If he fails to recover, Laurent Koscielny will replace him at center half alongside Raphael Varane. But they have started only a handful of games together and Nigeria has enough attacking threat to expose that inexperienced partnership.
France likes to dictate play, but given Nigeria’s propensity to throw players forward, Deschamps may pick his team with quick counterattacks in mind.
He has yet to truly decide what his favored lineup is, making surprise selections in all three group games so far.
Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann are challenging for a starting spot alongside Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena in France’s three-pronged attack, while Paul Pogba and Moussa Sissoko are contesting a place in midfield.
Griezmann and Sissoko are quicker players and better suited to playing on the break than Giroud and Pogba.