AHEAD WORLD CUP 2018
By Femi Solaja
One of the three likely goalkeepers to make Nigeria’s World Cup 2018 squad to Russia, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, has assured football fans in the country to worry less about the threat that Argentina’s mercurial forward and Captain, Lionel Messi, may pose to the Super Eagles with his free-kicks.
On record, Messi has a total of 39 direct free kick goals in his professional career, with 33 for his club FC Barcelona and 24 of them coming in La Liga. The Argentine super star has scored five free kicks with three coming from his last three games including his decisive lone goal winner against Atletico penultimate Sunday.
But Ezenwa who led Nigeria’s Home-based Eagles to runners-up finish at the last African Nations Championship insisted he has antidote to Messi’s dead balls.
“If I were to be between the sticks in the final group match against Argentina, I want to assure our teeming fans that I have the antidote to stop Messi in dead ball situations and to some extent other contending goal keepers can stop him as well,” the former FC Ifeanyiubah safe hands now Enyimba player noted.
Without any doubt, Messi is in incredible form this season and is angling to add the World Cup title-the missing link- to his profile.
He has scored six for Argentina including the free kick he scored against Vincent Enyeama in the final group match at the last World Cup in Brazil where the South American nation defeated Super Eagles 3-2 to top the group.
“Forget about his intimidating record as a dead ball specialist. We all know that Messi is a great player but as for me, I can tell you categorically that I have been working on him with the help from Eagles technical crew and the defence set up.
“I will make sure I stop him and don’t also forget that I’m yet to concede any goal via free kick and Messi, whom the whole world knows that he is a specialist in that area will never get me napping.
“If I am between the sticks and with God on my side, Messi’s magic will not work against me even during open play. Football speaks with one voice which is determination and it is a collective responsibility of us all of us to remain focus to banish the ghost of always losing to Argentina every time.
“Forget about the 4-2 win at the last international friendly, the real opportunity to beat them will come up in Russia and with good coverage from my colleagues I don’t see myself picking the ball(s) in the net if I happen to get the chance to be between the sticks for Super Eagles,” Ezenwa insisted.
The goalkeeper also recalled his first time on a big match day against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon at the last African World Cup qualifying series at the Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo where Super Eagles won 4-0 and drew 1-1 in Yaounde and go clear of other contenders for the group ticket.
“I am a guy for a big match day and this was what happened in Uyo where I kept a clean slate while my colleagues scored four goals against the current African champions, Cameroon. It was a game I will never forget,” Ezenwa recalled with relish.
On the opening Group D match against Croatia, Ezenwa believes it will not be a tea party
“Football pundit will not give us (Nigeria) any chance but we will remain focused knowing fully well that we carry the burden of over 180 million Nigerians. It is a task we cannot afford to fail.
“We know they have great stars like Ivan Rakitic, Lucas Modric and many more. But you have to realise that football speaks with one voice which is determination. With God on our side, we are ready to shock them in our first game in the group phase.
Super Eagle will square up against Croatia and later face Iceland before playing Argentina in the last group match with the first two team going to the knock-out phase.
Eagles reached the second round at the last edition in Brazil before they were eliminated but France with two late goals.
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