Football / World Cup USA '94: Sacchi seeking Italian show of strength: Trevor Haylett reports from Boston on today's challenge for Roberto Baggio
Tuesday 05 July 1994
Baggio is a superstar in crisis, his problems magnified by Italy's far-from-convincing start in this World Cup. After the game with Mexico which brought qualification to the second round and a glamour pairing today with the African Super Eagles he decided it was time to speak out.
Baggio complained he was being denied the freedom to express fully his talents. That playing with his back to the goal was good neither for player nor for country.
The coach, Arrigo Sacchi, has made his reply, reminding the Juventus star of stars that his best games over the past two seasons have been in the blue of Italy. 'It is not a problem of freedom,' he said. 'Baggio has not been playing at a high level but he has to find his best condition and we will help him in every way we can.'
Known throughout the world for their high technique and polished, easy skills Italy are being challenged by Sacchi to show this afternoon in the Foxboro Stadium that they can compete in physical terms as well. 'We are looking for the players who can give us the most physically because this is where the Nigerians are strongest,' Sacchi said. 'We are playing opposition who are both fast and have great stamina.'
His opposite number, Clemens Westerhof, believes the best of Nigeria is still to come and, never inclined to fall back on managerial platitudes, is already casting an eye towards future opposition. 'If we beat Italy, we meet Spain. If we beat Spain we have Germany,' he said. 'It is normal, you have to think ahead.'
Only Daniel Amokachi's spectacular injury-time goal against the Greeks assured Nigeria of a place on top of their group. Crucially it meant they could stay in Boston, where they are comfortable and where they do not have to accumulate more air miles until the final, should the prediction that they can become the first African winners of the event work out.
'Boston is our home town,' Westerhof said. 'People know us already and the boys are happy in the hotel.' Not even the presence of thousands of passionate Italians in the stadium can prick the balloon of optimism. 'My boys like that. The more other colours they see, the more challenged they are.'
First and foremost the Nigerians are playing for their country, but they are not unaware that an outstanding performance today could lead to lucrative transfers to bigger clubs in Europe. That is one target already in the bag for the 19-year-old midfield prodigy, Sunday Oliseh, who next season will be a new force in Serie A for Reggiana.
Oliseh's astute passing ability was a major factor in Nigeria's spring coronation as the African champions. 'If you had told me a few months ago that I was going to Italy and that I would play in Nigeria's winning team at the Nations' Cup and then on to the World Cup, I would never have believed you,' he said.
ITALY: Marchegiani (Sampdoria); Mussi (Torino), Costacurta, Maldini (both Milan), Benarrivo (Parma), Berti (Internazionale), Albertini, Donadoni (both Milan), Signori (Lazio), R Baggio (Juventus), Massaro (Milan).
NIGERIA: Rufai (Go Ahead Eagles); Iroha (Vitesse Arnhem), Okechukwu (Fenerbahce), Keshi (no club), Nwanu (Anderlecht), Okocha (Eintracht Frankfurt), Amokachi (Club Bruges), Oliseh (Reggiana), George (Ajax), Yekini (Olympiakos), Amunike (MSV Duisburg).
Referee: A Brizio Carter (Mexico).
Mexico, the surprise winners of Group E, are confident they can overcome Bulgaria today to set up a World Cup quarter-final meeting with the champions, Germany.
BULGARIA (probable): Mikhailov (Mulhouse); Kremenliev (Levski Sofia), Iliev (Rennes), Hubchev (Levski Sofia), Kiryakov (Lerida), Borimirov (Levski Sofia), Lechkov (Hamburg), Balakov (Sporting Lisbon), Kostadinov (Porto), Sirakov (Levski Sofia), Stoichkov (Barcelona).
MEXICO (probable): Campos (UNAM); Rodriguez (Toluca), Suarez, J Ramirez Perales (both UNAM), R Ramirez (Santos Torreon); Ambriz (Necaxa), Bernal (Toluca), A Garcia Aspe (Necaxa), L Garcia (Atletico Madrid); Alves (America), Hermosillo (Cruz Azul).
Referee: J Al Sharif (Syria).
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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