World Cup Ones to Watch: Kelechi Iheanacho, Nigeria
Russia 2018 needs a wildcard success story. Every tournament has one. Four years ago Colombia, the USA and Costa Rica were among those who punched thrillingly upwards, while Cameroon in 1990, Sweden in '94 and Poland in '82 provide examples from the archives. This year, if any group is going to offer a dark horse upon which to pin neutral hopes, it's Group D.
The narrative focus will inevitably fall on Argentina and Leo Messi's last real chance of emulating Diego Maradona and claiming football's ultimate prize. But this Argentina team has consistently disappointed – a succession of managers failing to find a system that gets the most from Messi. 2014's run to the final was hardly a demonstration of exhibition football, and eventual defeat at the hands of Germany seemed an inevitability. Argentina's preparations for this tournament have been similarly patchy, with Jorge Sampaoli's side scraping through qualifying before suffering a chastening 6-1 friendly defeat at the hands of Spain. In other words, do not expect Messi and co to have Group D all their own way – particularly given the nature of their opposition.
Iceland showed their mettle during Euro 2016, and will be extremely tough to beat in Russia. Croatia have one of the finest midfields in the tournament, with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic capable of running games against the world's best. And then there's Nigeria.
Two seasons ago, it looked as though Nigeria were building a young side capable of mounting a serious World Cup campaign. Breakthrough seasons for Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho hinted at the attacking depth at Nigeria's disposal. While the two young tyros impressed for top English cloubs, Odion Ighalo was bullying Premier League defences at Watford and Ahmed Musa was scoring consistently for CSKA Moscow.
Sadly, none of these players have pushed on since. Ighalo's purple patch was shortlived, and the powerful forward now plies his trade in China. Iwobi has seemingly gone backwards at Arsenal, and Ahmed Musa joined Leicester City as the club's record signing – only to be loaned back out to CSKA after failing to nail down a first-team spot.
Iheanacho was another Leicester acquisition. The move was a strange one, as the Nigerian had impressed at Manchester City – registering the league's best goals-per-minute ratio in his breakthrough season. But for whatever reason the striker failed to catch the eye of the incoming Pep Guardiola, and Iheanacho was allowed to leave for what appeared a bargain £25 million. As is so often the case, Guardiola's decision appeared vindicated as Iheanacho struggled for form and fitness at the King Power Stadium.
What seemed a bright future for Nigeria has dimmed significantly in the years since. But the hope that the Super Eagles can become this tournament's surprise package smoulders on. Iheanacho has an impressive eight goals in 14 appearances for his national team, so the killer instinct that made his name at the Etihad clearly remains undimmed. What a time it would be for him to rediscover his scoring form and make Nigeria a force in Group D and beyond.
The dream: Rediscover his touch in front of goal and ignite something special for Nigeria.
The nightmare: A goalless group stage followed by a swift exit as Group D's whipping boys.