A slight change of pace this week. I decided on a trip to one of three international friendly matches taking place in London. There seems to be a trend for England to host international friendlies, as so many of the top players are based in Europe. Argentina played Italy in Manchester last Friday, and Columbia were playing Australia on this same night. I choose Barnet and Nigeria v Serbia. I have fond memories of Nigeria from the 1994 World Cup and, well, Barnet is pretty close.
Italia 90 was the first World Cup I remember, but USA 94 was the first one I really got into. I followed the build-up, had the sticker album and watched as many games as I could. England’s absence left a gaping hole where I should have had a team to follow. This hole was largely filled by a superb Ireland team, but also by the excellent Nigerian side. They beat Greece and, eventual semi-finalists, Bulgaria in the group stage as well as pushing Argentina all the way and eventually being knocked out by Italy in extra time.
Competition: International Friendly
Ticket: £35 (£10 concessions)
Star Player: Aleksander Mitrovic
Who are ya, Nigeria
Nigeria played their first official game against Sierra Leone in October 1949. Prior to that match a group of 18 players toured England to play a series of warm-up matches. They played sides such as Bromley, Dulwich Hamlet and Bishop Auckland. After becoming an independent nation in 1960 Nigeria competed in their first African Cup of Nations in 1963. By the 1970s they were competing with the top sides on the continent.
The Super Eagles, as they are now know having previously been the Red Devils and the Green Eagles, came third in the Cup of Nations in 1976 and 1978 before finally winning the tournament in 1980. Nigeria went on to win the competition on two more occasions, in 1994 and 2013. They also won the 1996 Olympic gold medal after defeating Argentina, a country with whom they have developed a strong on field rivalry.
Russia 2018 is the sixth World Cup finals that the Super Eagles have qualified for, with 1994 being the first. They have reached the last 16 round on three occasions. In 1994 they lost after extra time to Italy, Roberto Baggio scoring an equalising goal two minutes from time. Four years later they went out 4-1 to Denmark, and in the last World Cup in Brazil they went out to France.
Who are ya, Serbia
Serbia, also known as the Eagles, have played as an independent nation since 2006, but are considered by FIFA to be the successors of the Yugoslavia and Serbia & Montenegro teams. Yugoslavia played their first international game at the 1920 Olympic games and finished in third place in the 1930 and 1962 World Cups. They were also runners up in the 1960 and 1968 European Championships.
The Eagles qualified for the 1998 and 2006 World Cups as Serbia & Montenegro after Yugoslavia was broken up. They made the last 16 round in 1998 and went out in the group stage in 2006. The Eagles have competed just as Serbia since Montenegro gained independence in 2006. They once again went out in the group stage in South Africa in 2010 but recorded a memorable 1-0 win over Germany.
Back at Barnet
This was my second visit to the Hive, as it was the first ground I visited after starting this blog. The ground was a slick as I remembered as I easily passed through the turnstile with my print at home ticket. The Hive has a clean, modern feel with good-sized stands that are close to the action as well as a terrace at one end. I was slightly put out by the £35 price for an adult ticket, especially as concessions were only £10 and prices were advertised as ‘from £18.
I was in the full main stand on the side closest to the train line. The largest contingent of Serbian fans occupied one end of the stand with Nigeria and neutral fans filling out the rest. A friendly mix of fans were also in the seated end and the terraced section. The Hive seemed to be an ideal size for this friendly as it was largely full and the atmosphere was good with both sets of fans adding their own distinctive style to supporting their countrymen.
Mitrovic applies the finishing touch to friendly win
The match itself was fairly lively for the second friendly in the space of five days for both sides. There was an intent to attack from both sets of eagles, but Serbia had more of the clear-cut chances. Mitrovic was denied what seemed like a clear goal in the first half as the linesman ruled out his effort that was partially saved by Uzoho. From my vantage point it looked like it had crossed the line.
Serbia had much of the play early on, but Nigeria came into the game as the first half went on. Moses and Ndidi became increasingly influential on the game and posed the biggest threat to the Serbian defence. Both sides had half chances before the break but neither were able to break the deadlock.
Nigeria brought off Moses at half time and Ighalo came on to try and hold the ball up a bit more for the Super Eagles. The switch also seemed to provide Iwobi with more space and the Arsenal man began to take a more prominent role in the midfield area. Nigeria managed to put the Serbian defence under longer spells of pressure, but were unable to force Stojkovic into many saves.
As the game wore on Serbia were starting the break down the Nigerian defence. Mitrovic soon scored the first goal of the night. The striker on loan at Fulham from Newcastle powerfully turned in a cross from Kostic. Mitrovic then added a second in similar circumstances. Kostic again found space down the left hand side and pulled the ball back for Mitrovic who once again finished with style. Nigeria failed to recover from conceded and struggled to find much of an answer to Serbia’s lead.
2018 World Cup and players to watch
Nigeria have been drawn against Argentina for a fifth time at the World Cup in Group D. They face one of the toughest groups on paper with Iceland and Croatia making up the other two places. The game with Serbia may have be seen as ideal preparation for facing the Croatians. Serbia, also facing a tough task, have been drawn in Group E against Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. They face the Costa Ricans and the Swiss in their first two games before what could be a crucial game against, one of the favourites, Brazil.
Tadic and Mitrovic, both familiar names in England, looked good for Serbia. Tadic floated around and took up good positions that caused a few problems for Nigeria. Mitrovic finished his chances well and should have had a hat-trick, were it not for a poor decision from the linesman. The left sided player Kostic, who plays in Germany for Hamburg, also looked good. Milinkovic-Savic, the great hope of Serbian football, was unfortunately not in the squad.
Moses and Iwobi, again familiar names in England, were the standout players for Nigeria, although Moses was withdrawn at half-time. Another Premier League player Ndidi also played well in a more advanced role than we usually see for Leicester. The missing piece for the Super Eagles is a good striker, of the like they’ve had in the past. Ighalo didn’t add a great deal when he came on. Iheanacho is another option, but he didn’t play in this game.
It was a fun evening watching a couple of top international teams with well-known players up close and personal at a good example of a well-designed modern stadium. The Hive was the ideal venue for this game. There was some confusion after the game as an announcement sent me to the bar to pick up a token to leave the car park that I firstly didn’t need and secondly they tried to get me to pay for. A small blot on Barnet’s copybook, but I’d still highly recommend the Hive for a visit. Hopefully it’ll host a few more international friendlies.