This was a lifeline for Nigeria and, in the wider picture, an injection of hope for Argentina too. It would take a brave punter to confidently predict who will join Croatia in qualifying from Group D but the Super Eagles, who deserved this win after a vastly improved second-half performance, hold the advantage and will be guaranteed to reach the last 16 if they defeat Jorge Sampaoli’s side in St Petersburg.
Ahmed Musa, brought in to provide greater cutting edge, rewarded his manager Gernot Rohr with two exhilarating goals and there was added misery for Iceland when Gylfi Sigurdsson missed a late penalty. They can still go through by defeating the Croats but will need to quickly rediscover their famed levels of organisation, which deserted them after the break.
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Rohr had suggested the blazing summer conditions in Volgograd might lend his team an edge. In reality more than that would be needed to erase the damage done in a sluggish opening defeat against Croatia; Rohr knew it and, in switching to a 3-5-2, gave chances to Kelechi Iheanacho and Kenneth Omeruo as well as Musa.
Yet it was Iceland, unperturbed by the 32C heat, who began with more thrust. Gylfi Sigurdsson tested Francis Uzoho, Nigeria’s 19-year-old goalkeeper, twice in the first six minutes and might have done better with the second effort when space opened up near the edge of the ‘D’. The buildup to that chance, worked intricately via Alfred Finnbogason, was a reminder that Iceland are more than the artisans popularly cast and it signalled, too, that their opponents’ new setup was a work in progress.
Not that Iceland are inclined to turn their noses up at old habits. Three times in the first 20 minutes they deployed the long throw of Aron Gunnarsson, a spell of pressure on the last of those occasions forcing Uzoho to twice claw crosses from under his bar. Few can match Gunnarsson’s range of propulsion but Wilfred Ndidi had a couple of tries in the same period, failing to make any meaningful indent in the Iceland defence.
That went for Nigeria as a collective although they did offer more purpose than last Saturday. Their starting position was noticeably higher and there was a snappiness that occasionally promised more. As the first half went on, though, a pattern memorable to anyone who watched them in Kaliningrad became clear: for all their territory down the flanks, most attacks finished with crosses of which the intended destination was unclear.
At least their endeavour could not be faulted, as Ndidi and Ogdenekaro Etebo both showed with perfect recovery tackles after errors from teammates. But what threat the game held at this point came from Iceland. Birkir Mar Saevarsson, an experienced right‑back who these days plays part‑time football in the domestic league with Valur, handed out a lesson with a series of laser-like deliveries that begged for a decisive touch. When Finnbogason did get something on a teasing Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick shortly before the interval, he glanced wastefully wide. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, brought in to partner Finnbogason up front, then failed to find a teammate with a free header at the far post.
Upon the whistle, Nigeria’s players went into a huddle while Iceland filed indoors. Whatever was said had a dramatic effect. They restarted at speed and, within four minutes, scored in the fashion that suits them best. It was an emphatically executed finish from Musa, who reacted ahead of a passive Ragnar Sigurdsson to control Victor Moses’s centre with an outstretched leg and blast past Hannes Halldorsson. Gallingly for Iceland the move came about after another attempted exocet from Gunnarsson was headed clear; their organisation deserted them as Nigeria countered blisteringly, Musa winning an important challenge before arriving 50 yards further forward to prove that, given space to stretch out, his team pack a genuine punch.
Now Iceland had to rediscover some initiative while avoiding being undone in a similar manner. The quandary was underlined when Halldorsson had to flip a deflected Ndidi shot over; they were further inconvenienced when Ragnar Sigurdsson, who briefly struggled on with a bandaged head after taking a knock when attempting to thwart Musa, was forced to depart.
Ruruk Gislason, whose looks caused minor hysteria online when he came on against Argentina, drove forward but failed to cause similar flutters, shooting over. Most of the traffic was now firmly in the other direction, Leon Balogun heading over and Musa curling against the bar. It was no surprise at all when Musa, racing on to a direct ball down the left channel soon afterwards, blazed past Kari Arnason and rounded Halldorsson before finishing coolly.
Nonetheless there was plenty of time left for the obligatory recourse to VAR, which correctly resolved that Tyronne Ebuehi had, after all, fouled Finnbogason in the area. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty sailed over and the celebrations resounded from Lagos to La Plata.