FRANCE vs. NIGERIA
ROUND OF 16
Monday, June 30 | 12:00 pm ET| Estadio Nacional, Brasilia, Brazil
TV: ESPN, Univision in USA; CBC in Canada
Call it David and Goliath; Monday’s first Round of 16 matchup features teams on very different runs of form. France’s spectacular collapse at the 2010 World Cup seems like a distant memory heading now after steamrolling through the group stages, while Nigeria had to rely on a certain amount of luck to snatch a spot in the Round of 16. As dangerous as the French have looked, however, they took their foot off the gas in their last group game, while Nigeria was able to go toe-to-toe with Argentina. Maybe their form isn’t really so different after all.
WELCOME BACK: Even if they are missing winger Michel Babatunde because teammate Ogenyi Onazi broke his arm with a shot against Argentina, this is a big moment for Nigeria. The Super Eagles have made it to the Round of 16 of the World Cup just twice in their history, and the last time they managed to do it was in 1998. Their campaign that year ended with a 4-1 loss to Denmark, and facing a French team that scored eight goals in their first two games of the competition, the Super Eagles will have to work very hard to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
FRENCH FIREPOWER: About those eight goals… did we mention that France scored eight goals in their first two games? Striker Karim Benzema opened the tournament with a hat trick against Honduras, and Les Bleus kept the party going against Switzerland by putting up five on Group E’s seeded team. In their last game, however, the French played a fairly mundane 0-0 draw against an Ecuadorian team that was down to 10 men for nearly the entire second half.
NIGERIA’S ANSWER: After a listless 0-0 draw against Iran and a controversial 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Super Eagles turned up the volume a little bit in a 3-2 loss to Argentina. Both goals came courtesy of striker Ahmed Musa, who has looked good in every game, even when Nigeria hasn’t played well. France’s first priority should be to stop Musa.
MAGINOT, MAYBE: France’s defense has looked great at times, and then like a major liability at others. The French totally fell asleep late in the game against Switzerland, allowing two goals after the 80th minute, and Mamadou Sakho likely should have been sent off against Ecuador for throwing an elbow. It may not matter, because Sakho is dealing with a hamstring injury that might keep him out on Monday, meaning that Raphael Varane would come in to partner with Laurent Koscielny in central defense. Without playing a ton of minutes together, it remains to be seen if Varane and Koscielny will be able to gel.
UNDER PRESSURE: Historically, if France make it out of the group stages at the World Cup then they go to at least the semifinal. After the debacle in South Africa, there’s certainly plenty of pressure to redeem themselves in Brazil, and right back Bacary Sagna told reporters on Friday that anything less than winning the World Cup would be considered a failure for Les Bleus.
BONUS STORY: Nigeria’s team missed practice on Thursday, allegedly because the Super Eagles’ had yet to receive their bonuses from their federation. A similar story panned out against Ghana, and the Black Stars crumbled under the pressure. Nigeria should be wary of sharing their fate.
THE STAR YOU KNOW: Mathieu Valbuena, France – After resting in France’s game against Ecuador, attacking midfielder Valbuena will likely return to the lineup, and the attacking flair Les Bleus showed in their first two games will return with him.
THE PLAYER WHO WILL SURPRISE YOU: Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria – Nearly six feet tall and 200 pounds, Emenike is what you might call “big.” He’ll get physical with France’s centerbacks, and we’ll see if they can get up for the challenge.