´If only the World Cup group stages lasted six matches´ – this is what Lars Lagerback must be thinking after his Nigeria side narrowly missed out on qualification despite ending up with only one point from their three matches.
Their first encounter, with the mighty Argentina, would prove to be a reliable gauge of their entire tournament. Plenty of possession and build-up play, but numerous missed chances deriving from an innate inability to finish.
Argentina were poor but still eked out a 1-0 victory, thanks largely to the first ten minutes while Nigeria were still admiring their illustrious opponents. Nigeria managed numerous breakaways and ought to have drawn. Their usefulness as a footballing side was confirmed but their incapacity in front of goal dictated that they were not going to be a nation that the biggest would fear.
It also assured that progress into the second round was never likely. The second match against Greece felt like a self-destruct button had been pressed – leading 1-0, Kaita got himself stupidly sent-off and Greece turned the game around. Nigeria still had chances against the wobbly Greek side, but they had once again lost their cool on the biggest stage.
Incredibly, Lagerback´s side could still qualify coming into the final game, despite being still pointless. And while their performance finally yielded some goals, and represented a good deal of progress from both their first and second matches, soft goals conceded and a startling lack of confidence from the front men ensured another African side hit the dust.
Yakubu ought to have been the leader with experience, but his inexplicable miss before he netted a penalty, followed by another wayward effort with the score at 2-2, confirmed that Nigeria didn´t possess the right temperament – at least this time around – to cope in the manic, and often bizarre, World Cup environment.
Perhaps if there were return games too, then Lagerback may have been toasting his side´s success. Yet World Cups are always unforgiving, something the Nigerian national side has yet to learn.