A quintet of Nigerian performers under pressure to deliver against South Africa and Uganda
With much of the pre-discussion ahead of Nigeria ’s upcoming international friendlies has focused on the head coach (or lack thereof) and the organisational concerns of the Glass House, it’s been easy to overlook the on-field situation for the Super Eagles.
The matches against Uganda and South Africa will ultimately not be settled in the corridors of Nigerian power, but on the turfs of Uyo and Nelspruit.
Daniel Amokachi’s selection has brought together Nigerian faces old and new and among the squad there are several players with points to prove. Obviously, all of the maiden call-ups will be hoping to mark their first international with a good performance, but in this feature I consider five internationals who all have something to demonstrate this week.
Considering Ahmed Musa’s domestic form in Russia for CSKA Moscow, it feels a little trite to suggest that he has something-anything-to prove to the Super Eagles selectors. He has scored nine goals and contributed four assists in the Premier League so far this term.
However, as ever, context is important and in this new-look Nigeria side, Musa must step up to play a critical role.
He dazzled at the World Cup, against Argentina, but failed to follow that up with a string of consistent performances.
There was the magnificent brace against Sudan during the qualifiers, but why has Musa not brought his club form to the international arena? Excluding the braces against the Falcons of Jediane and the Albiceleste the forward hasn’t scored in his last 19 internationals—surely he can do better, particularly with Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses out of the picture.
There was joy in some quarters when Stephen Keshi finally decided to call Sone Aluko into his Nigeria squad for the Afcon qualifiers.
Obviously, that didn’t go well for the Super Eagles in general, but Aluko was one of the bright lights of the side.
He scored a brace in that final match against South Africa, and had things gone better defensively, he might have been hailed as a national hero.
Despite naming him in the squad, Keshi was hesitant to use the Hull City man, never starting him and only giving him four appearances from the bench.
The Tigers man—who is not a regular in the Premier League this season (starting only eight fixtures) must be given a starting berth and allowed to showcase his myriad talents.
There haven’t been too many Super Eagles players more unfortunate than Leon Balogun over the last 18 months.
The Germany-based defender made his international bow against Mexico in a friendly early last year and immediately demonstrated his technical ability and admirable defensive presence. Had he not picked up an injury, his versatility would likely have led to a place in Keshi’s World Cup 23.
There is even an argument to say that the talented Balogun might have been a better option than the occasionally cumbersome Efe Ambrose at right-back.
Well, the Darmstadt man will likely get his chance to prove that he belongs a run in the side against Uganda and South Africa, particularly with Ambrose out of the picture.
Can he take it?
I don’t know how many times Nigeria fans have prompted me to eat humble pie for my questioning of Michel Babatunde’s worth ahead of the World Cup and my irresponsible promulgation of the #BabatundegoestoBrazil hashtag.
In my defence, I was present in the friendly against Scotland at Craven Cottage when he started and delivered a fairly hapless performance, but he proved me and many others wrong with his fine performances in the World Cup.
Asked to step in when things began crumbling for Moses, Babatunde demonstrated his class against Bosnia-Herzegovina—marrying technical prowess and an intense approach—and was bitterly unfortunate to be injured so quickly against Argentina.
He didn’t feature at all during the qualifiers—only returning to the squad for the final two matches—and will see the upcoming friendlies as an ideal opportunity to build on his lost momentum.
I feared that Anthony Ujah’s international career had come to an unhappy end on the fields of Brazil at the 2013 Confederations Cup.
With Moses and Emenike injured, Keshi turned to Joseph Akpala, Mohammed Gambo and Anthony Ujah—this tormented trio would go on to have a decidedly poor tournament, scoring a combined zero goals between them.
Gambo missed a great chance against Spain on his debut and hasn’t featured in a senior A international since, Akpala looked out of his depth in his two showings—against La Roja and Uruguay—while Ujah, given the baton against Tahiti, could only watch on impotently as Nnamdi Oduamadi (remember him?) bagged a hat-trick!
He was dropped after that match and dumped after that tournament as Keshi turned to the likes of Victor Obinna, Uche Nwofor and Michael Uchebo.
However, Ujah has demonstrated his class in the Bundesliga with nine goals for Koln so far this season. It’s a tally that has made him irresistable for the Super Eagles selectors. While Ideye Brown’s injury and Emenike’s loss of form are regrettable, the door is open for Ujah to be Nigeria’s main man in the upcoming fixtures.
Can he take the opportunity?