With the Super Eagles of Nigeria qualifying for the World Cup with a game to spare, Coach Gernot Rohr will now set his sights on the players that will make his 23-man squad for the soccer fiesta of next summer.
Over the years, experienced players have usually formed the crop of the team going into a major tournament like the World Cup, but with Rohr’s team having an average age of just over 24 years since he took charge, some young Nigerian players making waves for their club sides all around the world will be hoping the German tactician maintains that trend and put them on the flight to Russia.
Here are five youngsters that can break their way into the Super Eagles World Cup squad.
1. HENRY ONYEKURU
If there is one striker who has met all the criteria Gernot Rohr gave to be invited into the national team, it is Onyekuru. The youngster is banging in the goals in one of the top leagues in Europe, playing consistently every week in both the domestic league and Champion’s League, and more importantly, he’s a classy player.
However, all his exploits have just seen Rohr extend an invite to him twice (including the double header against Algeria and Argentina). His only appearance for the team has come in a friendly game against Togo, which was played in Corsica.
Onyekuru, who learnt his trade from the famed Aspire Academy in Qatar, has been firing on all cylinders in the Belgian division, having made his breakthrough with KAS Eupen last season where he plundered 22 goals to finish as the joint top scorer. Now with reigning champions Anderlecht on loan from Everton, the 20-year old has already registered seven goals in 14 appearances already this term.
One of the major attributes of Onyekuru as a forward player, is his flexibility. His repertoire of skills include him being able to play as a supporting striker or as a winger, which can definitely provide competition for the likes of Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi who currently occupy the wide areas in the team. These skill-sets are great attributes for the team, which Rohr cannot neglect going into the mundial.
2. VICTOR OSIMHEN
When Victor Osimhen burst into the footballing scene with his heroics at the U-17 World Cup in 2015 by scoring 10 goals in 7 appearances, the then 16-year old was mooted to be the heir apparent to Rashidi Yekini’s throne as the top goal scorer in the Super Eagles history.
Osimhen, who later joined up with German Bundesliga outfit VfL Wolfsburg, has made just four appearances for the team since making his debut in May of this year. That notwithstanding, the 18-year old has been able to make two appearances in the Super Eagles, which speaks volumes of the attributes the Ultimate Academy graduate brings to the table.
Standing at 6ft 1in, the 18-year old will definitely provide options aerially for the team going forward, compared to the rather diminutive duo of Kelechi Iheanacho and Odion Ighalo whom Gernot Rohr has used as his front men in recent matches. His hold-up play is magnificent, and his link-up play while playing up front is second to none.
These qualities of his are worth looking at, especially if Rohr is looking for a Plan B to break down opponents if the sleek passing style of the team doesn’t yield results in the course of a game.
3. FRANCIS UZOHO
Francis Uzoho is the rave of the moment when it comes to Nigerian goalkeepers plying their trade outside the shores of the country. The youngster’s performance hasn’t gone unnoticed as Gernot Rohr just included him in the 24-man squad to play Algeria in dead rubber World Cup qualification match, and the friendly against Argentina in Krasnodar.
When Deportivo La Coruna’s coach Pepe Mel decided to throw Uzoho into the deep blue sea in the game against Eibar, he took the opportunity with both hands and helped the team claim a goalless draw. Rohr, definitely would have taken note of how the 19-year old was able to withstand the pressure on his debut.
The question now is if the impression Uzoho made on the Super Eagles coach would last going into the World Cup in Russia.
Well for starters, it is worth noting that Uzoho who also graduated from Aspire Academy in Qatar, was deputy to Dele Alampasu in Nigeria’s U-17 team that won the world title in 2013. And as fate would have it, the precocious talent would most likely usurp Alampasu going into the mundial as Alampasu has struggled to warm his way into the heart of Rohr after being invited to the camp in over half of the matches the coach has taken charge of.
The onus now lies on Uzoho to make the good impression Rohr has of him last, going into the World Cup.
4. KELECHI NWAKALI
Since being denied the opportunity of representing the country alongside his brother Chidiebere at the U-17 World Cup in 2013, Kelechi Nwakali has grown in leaps and bounds.
He shrugged off that disappointment to captain Nigeria to glory at the 2015 edition of the age cadet competition. However, the icing on the cake was winning the tournament’s Golden Ball award. Greater things lay ahead for this gifted midfielder.
While on loan at MVV Maastricht from his parent club Arsenal, the 19-year old scored two goals from his attacking midfield role, but it was his all-round contribution that made Arsenal youth team expert Jorge Bird give him the award as the best performing youth player for the 2016/2017 season, and also the best loanee award.
Nwakali, who typically plays as an attacking midfielder, is also adept at playing in a more central role, thereby exemplifying his versatility. These are the kind of qualities Gernot Rohr needs to fix the lack of creative spark missing in the team, especially if Mikel Obi is injured or needs to be replaced in a match.
Now on loan at Dutch side VVV Venlo, Nwakali has been in scintillating form so far and if he continues this way, he might as well displace one of the midfielders in Rohr’s team going into the World Cup.
5. MUSA MUHAMMED
Known for his ability to dominate the right flank from his full back role, Musa Muhammed might yet be the permanent solution for the Super Eagles going into the World Cup.
With Shehu Abdullahi who is a midfielder currently occupying the right full-back position, it must be worth noting that the Sokoto-born player has been a stop-gap measure for Gernot Rohr.
Kenneth Omeruo, Wilfred Ndidi and Musa Muhammed have all auditioned for the role in time past during Rohr’s tenure, but Muhammed is the only natural fit to that role, with others either being central defenders or midfielders.
One of the major reasons Muhammed stagnated since his exploits for Nigeria at the U-17 and U-20 level was because of his choice of club side. His move to Istanbul Basaksehir limited him to just 11 appearances in the entire season, which Rohr couldn’t condone as he has always wanted his players playing regularly for their club sides.
Now on loan at Bulgarian first league club Locomotive Plovdiv, Muhammed seems to be warming his way into the heart of the coach, mainly because of the qualities he brings to the table.
If Rohr decides to extend an invite to him, he will be getting a player who asides his great pace and power down the flank, is also great at set pieces, which is one aspect no player in the current Super Eagles fold is good at.