John Obi Mikel is nothing if not optimistic when it comes to Nigeria’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.
Although Africa’s third round of qualifying only reaches its halfway point at the end of this month and beginning of September, the Super Eagles captain believes a place at the global finals is within their grasp.
Group B, in which Nigeria are already four points clear of second-placed Cameroon and five ahead of Zambia and Algeria, certainly makes for pleasant reading.
And though four tough games have still to be negotiated, Mikel is upbeat about their prospects of topping the table and claiming the section’s sole spot at Russia 2018.
“We are in a very good position in our group,” the 30-year-old Tianjin Teda midfielder told FIFA.com.
“We have two wins from two games, and in our last game we beat Algeria at home.
“We have a very good young team and the players play good football. If we can win our next match (at home to Cameroon on 1 September) it will edge us closer to qualification. I think we can go through.”
For the former Chelsea star, the pressure to make it to Russia is immense. And as he explained, that is not simply due to the expectations of supporters in his football-mad homeland.
“My wife is Russian,” he said, “and many of our relatives and friends are from Russia. They are all expecting Nigeria to qualify for the next World Cup. I think they will kill me if I fail them,” he added, laughing.
For all his confidence, Mikel is under no illusions that the remainder of Nigeria’s campaign will be easy.
Looming large, after all, are back-to-back meetings with reigning African champions Cameroon, who have drawn both their matches thus far.
The Super Eagles captain knows that these meetings on 1 September and 4 September will go a long way towards deciding the group’s outcome.
“As everyone knows, they are a very good team,” he said of Cameroon.
“They are strong and they play with confidence. We must get ourselves well prepared for this game and try our best to get on top against them.
“It won’t be easy but these are important matches. If we win both, we will be almost there.”
As might be expected given his role as captain, Mikel has figured prominently in Nigeria’s qualifying campaign thus far.
Notably, he scored one and set up for another in their most recent triumph: a 3-1 win over Algeria in November.
However, injury has kept him sidelined over recent months, causing concern for supporters of both club and country.
Mikel, though, has vowed to do everything within his power to be fit for this vital upcoming double-header.
“I had maintained good form until this injury,” he said.
“So it was a shame. But this is part of the game and now I am focusing on recovery and on coming back stronger. I will do whatever I can to get fit to play for Teda and my national team.
“This Nigeria team look up to me for advice. My team-mates miss me and they need me. As the captain, I want to fulfil my role and help them with my experience.”
Culled from FIFA