By Mark Gleeson
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Nigeria may have suffered a bout of stage fright that proved their undoing against Argentina and ensured their early elimination at the World Cup in Russia, but a youthful squad has much potential for the future.
The Super Eagles were just minutes from ensuring a top two finish in Group D but gave up a last-gasp goal to Argentina in St Petersburg on Tuesday and eventually finished third, having beaten Iceland but lost to both Croatia and the South Americans.
It was the fifth time in the last six World Cups that Nigeria had faced Argentina in the opening round, and their losing record continued with the narrow 2-1 defeat.
It was always going to be a difficult task for a largely young and inexperienced side, with only five survivors from the squad that reached the second round in Brazil four years ago.
Nigeria had the youngest squad in Russia with an average age of 25.9-years - and it showed.
A teenaged goalkeeper, inexperienced defence and young forwards like Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi looked overwhelmed at times, almost in awe of their opponents.
That was particularly true of the opening game against Croatia in Kaliningrad, where Nigeria were hardly a factor in a 2-0 defeat, and again against Argentina, notably in the first half.
But flashes of individual brilliance emphasised that Nigeria can be a dangerous proposition when on form, and with more exposure they are expected to be among the favourites for next year’s African Nations Cup title.
"We have a very young team who lack some experience, but in four years we'll be very strong," predicted coach Gernot Rohr after Tuesday's defeat as he looked ahead even further to the next World Cup in Qatar.
He will need to get more out of Victor Moses, who is key to the side but made no impression in Russia and hope for more consistency too from Ahmed Musa, whose two expertly taken goals against Iceland proved the high point for the Africans.
But Rohr has the material to produce a more competitive outfit in the years ahead.
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Hugh Lawson)