Eagles’ glory days beckon

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By Ade Ojeikere

When Kelechi Iheanacho shone like a million stars during the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the world waited with bated breath for his exploits as he grew older and better. Iheanacho’s sublime skills illuminated the competition. His ‘tiny’ statue left lovers of the game pondering over his speed and his sense of judgment in placing the ball beyond the reach of goalkeepers he played against. Indeed, it wasn’t the first time Nigeria would be playing at the cadet competition with young Nigerians teasing the world with their scintillating moves copied from great stars they watched on television.

It didn’t come as a surprise when Manchester City beat other European clubs to Iheanacho’s signature. Many pundits reckoned that Iheanacho made a mistake in joining the elite club in Europe. A few others thought otherwise drawing examples of many European kids who broke into world reckoning at a younger age. Need I waste space listing these kids, not forgetting what the great Pele of Brazil said about them at the Mundial years ago?

Iheanacho learned a lot from Manchester City earning the sobriquet ‘Uncle’ which he called the senior players he met at the Cityzens. No surprises because of the African culture of according respect to those older than the younger ones. Iheanacho had what was required to grab a regular shirt at Manchester City. But Pep Guardiola thought differently, preferring Gabriel Jesus to the Nigerian. Jesus played regularly and that affected Iheanacho’s performance which was often based on cameo appearances. Faced with an obvious forced exit, Iheanacho jumped at Foxes’ offer, especially with a Nigerian having a swell time with Leicester City.

Initially, Iheanacho struggled at the King Power Stadium as he played under the shadows of former England striker Jamie Vardy. He was even forced to constantly praise the Foxes’ arrowhead in the attack whenever he played alongside the English star.

He said in one of his interviews: “I have been working hard in training every day to make sure I keep up to the standard. I am happy today, getting a goal and assisting Jamie so today was very good and it was fantastic with the whole team.

“You need to be strong mentally as a football player, it’s not easy not getting enough playing time. I know Jamie is a world-class striker, I am behind him and learning a lot from him as well so I am happy and I know my chance will come.”

Iheanacho did not start the current season on a bright note but has blossomed over the last couple of weeks, scoring goals with relative ease and becoming Leicester’s go-to man for goals. Foxes manager, Brendan Rodgers cannot afford to bench him at the minute, playing him alongside Vardy in every match to devastating effect.

Iheanacho has scored six goals in his last five Premier League games for Leicester, as many as he managed in his previous 57 games in the competition combined. The Leicester striker has scored 14 goals in all competitions this season, equalling his best tally in a single campaign; the Nigerian scored 14 for Man City in 2015-16. It’s no surprise as he is playing just behind Vardy which is his preferred role.

Iheanacho began his senior career at Manchester City during the 2015–16 season after joining the Cityzens straight from helping the Golden Eaglets win the 2013 FIFA World Cup. He moved to Leicester City in 2017 for a reported, £25 million fee and the deal was recently renewed to 2024.

With such a rich resume with the Foxes, would it be appropriate to hand Iheanacho the Super Eagles top striker shirt considering the remarkable outings of Onuachu and Victor Osimhen?

The answer may have been answered in Porto Novo against the Squirrels of Republic of Benin and in Lagos against the Crocodiles of Lesotho inside the late Teslim Balogun Stadium. Onuachu scored in Porto Novo while Osimhen did against Lesotho leaving Iheanacho with the option of providing the pass which Onuachu converted for Nigeria’s third goal against Lesotho.

Onuachu stood taller than everyone inside the Republic of Benin’s six-metre box to nod in the goal that separated Nigeria and the hosts in the 93rd minute. What it means is that Gernot Rohr must find a way to play to Onuachu’s strength which includes using his head to score goals. Rohr should change the team’s formation which should include players who could deliver crosses to Onuachu to convert into goals. There are very few players in the world who can dwarf the Nigerian inside the 18-metre box.

Onuachu’s knowledge of the goal area is quite remarkable little wonder he has scored 27 goals this season with a few games to the end of the season. The swiftness in which Onuachu controlled the side-footed pass from Henry Onyekuru before blasting into the Lesotho net before blasting into the Lesotho net showed he is quite comfortable with the ball, even when he is tightly marked. This writer is reluctant in likening Onuachu to the late Rashidi Yekini though he could better Yekini’s records if he remains as consistent and reliable as Rashidi was.

If Rohr truly to win the Africa Cup of Nations’ trophy in next year, he should give Onuachu the top striker shirt and find a way of getting Iheanacho to play with the big striker who appears to have pace on the ball. Rohr should jettison his fixation towards particular players, if he hopes to join the league of coaches who won the AFCON diadem for Nigeria.

Paul Onuachu is enjoying his most prolific form at the moment with Genk and has scored a remarkable 27 goals in 30 league appearances. The 26-year-old is at his football peak and it’s no surprise that the likes of 7-time UEFA Champions League winners AC Milan are looking at his direction.

Nigeria has always been blessed with great forwards and the current Coach Gernot Rohr has been blessed with three goal-scorers that are totally different but can complement each other when used properly. Now, the German needs to earn his pay and make these guys fire the Super Eagles back to its glory days.

One thing is clear, Onuahu can’t be bullied off the ball. It is an asset Rohr must exploit to the fullest. Countries at AFCON next year should clay feet when faced with Onuachu’s qualities, leaving Iheanacho and Osimhen to score the goals with aplomb. Osimhen’s game hasn’t matched his potentials this season largely because of injuries and the effects of contracting Covid-19. He could still surpass some of the things pundits expect him to achieve. However, Osimhen needs to improve on his temperament. oppositions could capitalise on his quick temper to get him off the pitch to the disadvantage of his team. No matter how provoked he is, he should know that is a punishable offence to retaliate, especially if he is caught by the vigilant eyes of the referees or through the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) machine.

Osimhen is a complete striker who is intelligent, very quick on and off the ball making it difficult for his markers to police him. He is proficient with both feet and has scored many goals using his head to bury the balls behind goalkeepers for both club and country.

Osimhen has scored just five goals in Serie A this season following his big-money move from Lille but it was down to injuries, Covid-19, and suspensions. The 22-year-old showed that he is a great forward during his time in Belgium and France with Charleroi and Lille respectively. Before then, he rose to become the all-time highest goal-scorer in a single FIFA U-17 World Cup tournament when his 10goals helped the Golden Eaglets win the trophy for Nigeria for a record five-time, making her the most successful side in the history of the competition.

The depth in strength in the Eagles is best captured by the fact that scorers such as Joe Aribo and Samuel Chukwueze would be forced back to the bench except they can function in the midfield which has Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebor as the gladiators. Happily, Ndidi and Etebor are man-marking midfielders who can also score goals. Mention must be made about Alex Iwobi who can fit into the team’s attacking options and also in the midfield.

In fact close to 80 per cent of the members of this team play for their European teams regularly depending on their managers’ plan for different games. This is the fillip the team needs to emerge victorious in next year, if Rohr puts on his thinking cap during the competition. Attack is the best form of defence and i hope that Rohr factors this acclaim in his match strategies next year.(Nation).