By Gabriele Marcotti, SI.com
John Obi Mikel plays a much different role for Nigeria than he does at his club side, Chelsea.
Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Over the next four months, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We start with Nigeria.
Vincent Enyeama gives the Super Eagles something they haven't had in a while: a top-notch goalkeeper. At 27, he's in the prime of his career and his performances for Israeli Premier League club Hapoel Tel Aviv in this season's Europa League have drawn rave reviews. Protecting him on the back line is Everton central defender Joseph Yobo. If he's on form, he's the bedrock on which the defense is built. A commanding veteran who was slowed by injury earlier this season, he has performed better for his country lately than his club.
As far as options moving forward go, it's time for Taye Taiwo to live up to his potential. Quick, strong and athletic, the Marseille left back is extremely dangerous both in terms of providing width and in hitting set-pieces. This could be his "coming out" tournament where he establishes himself as one of the best in the world.
John Obi Mikel is another guy at a crossroads. At Chelsea, he's a purely defensive midfielder. At the World Cup, he'll have to show creativity and personality as the main playmaker in a more advanced role. Still just 22, it's time for him to show the ability which prompted Chelsea and Manchester United to engage in furious legal battle for his services a few years ago.
"Feed the Yak and he will score!" That's what Everton fans sing to Yakubu Aiyegbeni. Nigerians may come up with something different, but it's clear that his big, physical presence up front will be absolutely crucial. When he's fit, he can tie up both central defenders, leaving space onto which the likes of Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins can run.
What to watch for
In past World Cups, Nigeria was known for boasting plenty of attacking flair and talent, but also serious defensive lapses. No more. This current team's back five (including Enyeama in goal) is very solid, and it will get plenty of protection from the midfield. The flipside is that you're not sure what you're going to get up front: Yakubu has had fitness problems, while Martins and Odemwingie can be inconsistent. Still, it won't take much for Nigeria to catch fire offensively.
Another concern is the coach, Shaibu Amodu. Picking a talented local coach, rather than the usual rent-a-boss foreigner, was a brave choice, but he has come under fire by those who don't appreciate his somewhat cautious (and, ironically, not very Nigerian) approach, not least because it took the team a while to get firing on all cylinders in qualifying.
That said, Nigeria has the basic ingredients to do well in a knockout competition. This squad is tough defensively and has the players who can raise their game up front, provided they got hot. The midfield is a bit one-dimensional. There's lots of muscle and not much quality, apart from Kalu Uche (who'll struggle to make the starting lineup under Amodu) and Mikel (who effectively plays an entirely different role with Nigeria than he does with his club). The risk is that the front three remain isolated, with nobody supplying chances from the middle of the park.
Key match in group stage
June 12 vs. Argentina. It's not crucial that Nigeria wins or even gets a point, but it's essential that it starts the tournament well, keeping controversy and over-confidence (which have been its undoing the past) at bay. A bad defeat will bring back the old demons, which might make Greece and South Korea tougher tasks than they should be.
Celebrity scouting report: Osi Umenyiora*
I was born in London and lived in Lagos until I was 14, so England and Nigeria are my teams. In fact, I'll call it right now: They're gonna meet in the final. I go crazy for the World Cup, man -- especially since none of my Giants teammates are soccer fans. ... Talent-wise, this Nigeria team isn't the strongest team we've had. We kind of back-doored our way in, and the other results went our way. But we're in, and now anything can happen. ... We have a bunch of good players who are really talented. In the past, we've never really had the coaching to get these guys to perform at the level where they should be. This coach, if he gets them together, I think we could be a big surprise. I think we'll actually do OK. I wouldn't be surprised to see them upset Argentina. ... Nwankwo Kanu is old! But I guess he's got to be the leader, and he'll be a good captain. I like him a lot. But my guy is Martins. I know he's bounced around club teams a lot, but he's still a good footballer and can score goals.
*The New York Giants defensive end was born to Nigerian parents. As told to Jonah Freedman.