KOBE, Japan, AFP
Nigeria became the first casualty of the World Cup’s ‘Group of Death’ when they lost 2-1 to Sweden here on Friday.
Two goals from Henrik Larsson cancelled out Julius Aghahowa’s 27th-minute of header and the Swedes managed to survive enormous Nigerian pressure in the last quarter an hour.
The result leaves Nigeria pointless from two games and lifts the Swedes to the top of the group with four points ahead of Argentina and England, who meet later on Friday in an eagerly awaited clash in Sapporo.
The Nigerians had been unlucky not to equalize. John Utaka had a shot cleared off the line with seven minutes remaining in the match and Joseph Yobo hit the post with a 25-yard drive just afterwards.
Nigerian coach Adegboye Onigbinde said his team had lacked the break which would have kept them in the tournament.
“The luck was on their side today. We had about four good chances which stayed out because of bad luck,” he said.
“They played a good game. They’re a strong side, very solid.”
One half of Sweden’s coaching duo, Lars Lagerback, meanwhile paid tribute to Larsson’s match-winning performance.
“I am really glad for him because as well as being a goalscorer he also works really hard for the team and I don’t know many goalscorers who do that.
“I think it was a more open game than we usually play,” Lagerback added.
“Offensively we played very well but we had some problems with our defense. In total we had a very good game and I think we deserved to win.”
Asked about the prospect of facing Argentina on Wednesday, he said: “It’s a new match and we have to wait to see the result tonight.”
Aghahowa became the leading candidate for the goal celebration of the tournament after greeting his glancing header past Swedish goalkeeper Magnus Hedman with a spectacular multiple backflip that delighted the crowd.
But Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg combined to equalize seven minutes later.
A perfectly-timed pass split the Nigerian defense and the pacy Larsson cut inside to plant the ball past keeper Ike Shorunmu.
Sweden took the lead in the 62nd minute when Larsson converted a penalty after being tripped by Ifeanyi Udeze.
Nigeria brought on Nwankwo Kanu in a bid to draw level but Sweden wasted a chance to take a 3-1 lead when Anders Svensson drove his shot straight at the keeper from a good position.
Veteran Nigerian defender Taribo West, who had returned to the action wearing a bandage after five minutes of treatment to a head wound, sent a header narrowly wide from a Jay Jay Okocha cross.
And Larsson then wasted a chance of a hat-trick by losing the ball in the Nigerian area.
Still Nigeria pushed, Okocha blasting wide with 15 minutes left but it was not to be for the two-time African champions.
They had almost taken a half-time lead with five minutes remaining.
The in-form Okocha dribbled round the Swedish defense and his goalbound shot was cleared off the line by Teddy Lucic. The ball rebounded off his team mate Johan Mjallby and hit the post.
Aghahowa, currently with Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, was a constant threat to the Swedish rearguard with his pace and strength, proving he has a bright future.
Sweden’s best first-half period came after 20 minutes when Ljungberg’s dribble took him past three defenders, forcing a corner from which Mjallby’s header was cleared off the line by Justice Christopher.
The Nigerians, defeated 1-0 by Argentina in their opener, were in trouble in the opening quarter of an hour when Larsson broke and squared the ball to Allback whose poor shot was deflected for a corner and before the Nigerians regrouped, Olof Mellberg blasted just over the crossbar.