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Nigeria ‘not here to make up the numbers’ Iran predicting surprise run to knockout stages

CAMPINAS, Brazil, June 14, (Agencies): Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi believes Nigeria are on the right track to turn around a dismal recent record in World Cup finals and can build on their success as African champions. The Super Eagles have played in five of the past six World Cups but after reaching the second round in 1994 and 1998, have taken just two points from their past six matches in the finals. They come into the tournament on a high after winning last year’s Africa Cup of Nations and boast the likes of Mikel, his Chelsea team-mate Victor Moses and forward Emmanuel Emenike. “This is my first World Cup,” Mikel said after a training session in Campinas, outside Sao Paulo. “I want to make sure we achieve something coming here. We don’t just want to come and make up the numbers, we want to do well.

“I have to make sure I lead by example. We are all driving in the same direction. We all know what we want and hopefully we will have a good tournament.” Mikel said becoming African champions had given the side an injection of confidence as they prepare to take on the best teams in the world. “We know we’re the African champions and people expect us to do well, to represent the African continent,” he said. “That’s a bit more extra pressure but it’s pressure that we love. We love to be African champions.”
“We’re doing well, we’re doing everything we can. We’re preparing well. Today the result in Spain against the Netherlands (5-1 victory for the Dutch) shows anything is possible so we have to make sure we approach games seriously and play well.

Moses, heading back to Chelsea after a loan spell at Liverpool, agreed that Nigerian football was on the up as the side prepare to play Iran in their Group F opener on Monday. “Things are going in the right direction for us at the moment,” said Moses. “The younger lads won the under-17 World Cup and we won the Africa Nations last year so if we can bring the same determination that we did in the Africa Nations into this World Cup it will be very good for us.” But coach Stephen Keshi said he was anxious to forget about recent football triumphs and focus on the future as his side bids to become the first African World Cup winners. “Things are going in the right direction but that’s the past tense. We want that to stop. We need to focus on what is in front of us and we’ll take it from there,” he said.

And Keshi said football was a force for unity in the west African nation, struggling to cope with the threat from Boko Haram militants. “Football is the one unifying force in Nigeria,” he said. “The fans are so passionate so when they’re playing you can’t see anybody on the street.” This week officials in northeast Adamawa state announced the closure of all football viewing centres because of the threat of attack. It came a week after 40 people were killed in an explosion at a football pitch, shortly after a match in the town of Mubi, in Adamawa state, which was blamed on Boko Haram. The other teams in Group F are Bosnia and Argentina. Iran midfield stalwart Andranik Teymourian believes the unfancied Asians can surprise the world in Brazil and book a place in the World Cup knockout stages for the first time.
The Iranians are tipped to struggle in their fourth appearance at the finals with Nigeria and Bosnia  expected to battle it out for the runners-up spot in Group F behind overwhelming favourites Argentina.
But defensively-minded Iran, who conceded one goal in four warm up matches, are hoping to prove the pundits wrong ahead of Monday’s clash against Nigeria in Curitiba.
“We are more experienced and I hope that we will advance out of the group stage,” Teymourian told reporters.
 

“In our group, perhaps our match against Argentina will be strongest. Off course our opening match will be important. “In the World Cup, we mustn’t make any mistakes. I can say with confidence that we will be a surprise for all people,” added the midfielder, who played all three group matches in the 2006 tournament. Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said earlier this week he had already decided upon his starting lineup for the match against the African champions. That 11 is sure to include Teymourian sitting alongside deep-lying playmaker Javad Nekounam and protecting the back four while looking to instigate quick counter attacks down the flanks through the speedy Ashkan Dejagah and Masoud Shojaei. Former German youth international Dejagah, one of a number of players in the squad found through the Iranian diasporas, shared Teymourian’s confidence. “Our opening match is very important and I hope that we will have a good start. The Iranian players are working very well,” he said. “Our team has been working hard from first training until now and all of players are ready for World Cup. We have this chance to qualify to next round.”

While preparations, tactics and selections have already been decided ahead of Monday’s clash, the future of Queiroz remains up in the air. The former Real Madrid manager and Manchester United assistant is expected to step down after the finals after a tricky three years in charge where financial and political issues at the federation have hampered his solid work. Iran FA president Ali Kaffashian told Iranian media in Brazil that he would like to keep Queiroz, with the 2015 Asian Cup fast approaching in January. “We have not reached a final decision on Queiroz although we think he is the best candidate,” Kaffashian told reporters, adding the FA would have to get help to pay the coach’s salary. “To get someone in the standard of Queiroz is going to be costly.”

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