The Super Eagles breezed through the African qualifiers unbeaten on the pitch in a group that was christened, ‘Group of Death’ that paraded reigning African champions, Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia.
However, with less than 100 days to global fiesta, the big question to most stakeholders and followers of the game, is who will make the squad to the eastern European nation as a success-starved as Nigeria goes in hunt of global attention?
Nigeria’s best performance in the history of her participation dates back to her debut appearance at USA ’94, 26 years ago. During the qualifiers, the Eagles’ showed ‘character as they eased their way to the Mundial, but higher challenges now face Gernot Rohr tutored-side.
The draw was relatively kind to Nigeria who are housed in Group B alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland but the Eagles second round finish in the last edition at Brazil 2014, suggest the teaming fans of the team will not take any result lesser than a quarter final finish for granted.
Rohr, who recently signed a two year contract extension until 2020, even without any previous World Cup experience either as a player or coach, will be the cynosure of all eyes, as he attempts to fathom tactical maneuvers that will push the Eagles’ to satisfy the yearnings of Nigerians, who endlessly insist on good football.
Despite releasing a 28-man squad that include goalkeepers Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna, Spain), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba FC), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United, South Africa).
Others are defenders, Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor FC, Turkey), Tyronne Ebuehi (Ado Den Haag, The Netherlands), Olaoluwa Aina (Hull City, England), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge KSV, Belgium), Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm, Russia), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes FC, France), William Ekong (Bursaspor FC, Turkey), Leon Balogun (FSV Mainz 05, Germany), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa FC, Turkey), Stephen Eze (Lokomotiv Plovdiv, Bulgaria)
Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda, China); Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor FC, Turkey); Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England); Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas, Spain); John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel); Uche Agbo (Standard Liege, Belgium); Joel Obi (Torino FC, Italy)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow, Russia); Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England); Moses Simon (KAA Gent, Belgium); Victor Moses (Chelsea FC, England); Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai, China); Alex Iwobi (Arsenal FC, England); Junior Ajayi (Al Ahly, Egypt); Gabriel Okechukwu (Akwa United) for this month’s pre-World Cup games against Poland and Serbia, his main task between now and June 4 when Eagles tackle England’s Three Lions at the Wembley is selecting a final 23-man squad.
Although, FIFA is expecting Nigeria, alongside other 31 countries that will be on parade in Russia, to send a preliminary list of 40 players, at least four months (120 days) before the kick-off of competition.
And Rohr seems to have plenty of options at his disposal in some positions, less in others, but by now, the German must have an idea of who he plans to include or discard in the final team.
Which Eagles’ stars places in Russia are already guaranteed, who are still in contention and who are at major risk of missing out entirely?
This report, therefore, attempts a post-mortem on potential Eagles’ squad and sees who will get Rohr’s nod when the final 23-man shortlist is drawn up?
On Flight To Russia 2018
John Obi Mikel (Tianjin Teda, China)
The former Chelsea midfielder is simply one of Nigeria’s best and most important player’ going into Russia 2018. ‘Mikel’ as Eagles’ followers prefer to call the China’s Teda star could as well keep Rohr’s captain armband by the time the Eagles open hostilities against Croatia on Saturday, June 16 in Kaliningrad.
Victor Moses (Chelsea FC, England)
Barring any form of dip in form, Victor Moses is another top star Rohr will be counting on in the squad for Russia, though the German must work on getting the best out of the Chelsea man who will playing more upfront role in Russia than the wing back duties he performs for Antonio Conte’s side in the English topflight.
Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor FC, Turkey)
The Turkey-based midfielder and vice captain of the team is yet to convince many in an Eagles’ shirt but as one of Rohr’s regulars since coming on board, the former Lazio man seems certain of a spot in the final 23-man squad.
Alex Iwobi (Arsenal FC, England)
To many of Super Eagles’ followers, Alex is a player worth showing patience with. And to others he’s Eagles’ most naturally-gifted wide man. He adds pace and flair to the Eagles' attack although he is still finding his feet in Arsene Wenger's ailing Gunners’ team - but for Nigeria, he's very much a key figure.
The nephew of Eagles legend and captain, Austin Jay-Jay Okocha, the Eagles’ poster boy appears to have inherited some, if not all, of his uncle's tricks. Hopefully, these will be on display in Russia.
Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England)
The Foxes’ defensive midfielder has showed much form and stem this season while turning out for King Power Stadium outfit. The 21-year-old is expected by many of Eagles’ supporters to translate club form to the big centre stage at the Mundial. The combative midfield enforcer with 14 international caps under his belt, has shown that he remains an important player to Rohr’s setup so far.
Leon Balogun (FSV Mainz 05, Germany)
Hailed as Nigeria’s ‘best defender’ going into Russia 2018 by majority of the fans and coaches. Only fitness issues may prevent him from appearing at his first major international tournament.
William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor FC, Turkey)
Born in the Netherlands to a Nigerian father, and Dutch mother, Troost-Ekong represented the Netherlands at under-19 and under-20 youth levels. However, he made his senior international debut for Nigeria on June 13, 2015, playing 90 minutes in an Insert non-formatted AFCON qualifier against Chad and since then he has not looked back. Russia 2018 will definitely bring out the best in Troost-Ekong, who partnership with Leon Balogun in Eagles’ heart of central looks good to continue at the Mundial.
The World Cup will be the second time in two years that the defence ace will be representing Nigeria at a major competition. He was also a member of the bronze-winning Dream Team IV at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.
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Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor FC, Turkey)
On his day, Shehu is one of Nigeria’s most effective full-backs in recent time. Since Late Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi looked in his direction, ahead of the 2014 African Nations Championship, the former Plateau United ace has continued to grow with his game and has not looked back.
The 24-year-old was also a member the bronze-winning Dream Team IV at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.
Shehu is one of Rohr’s anointed sons and is on course to Russia 2018 where his quest of becoming Nigeria’s outstanding right-back choice will likely blossom.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England)
Kelechi is set to round-off his meteoric rise through the Golden Eaglets’ squad, the Flying Eagles team to FIFA U-20 World Cup with a World Cup finals appearance, The Foxes’ forward is slowly re-establishing himself as one of Rohr’s trusted strikers.
Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai, China)
Ajegunle-born ex-Watford front man, Odion, surely has what it takes to lead the line for the Eagles’ at Russia 2018.
From the records, despite playing in China, Odion offers better goals account, if utilised properly. Expect the former Flying Eagles’ captain at to play to Eagles’ strengths by taking opposition defences unaware.
Uzoho, Ezenwa, Akpeyi (shot stoppers)
The trio of goalkeepers Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna, Spain), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba FC) and Daniel Akpeyi Chippa United of South Africa) no doubt look good to make the squad to Russia.
Frankly, there may be questions among the fans’ over who should be Eagles’ No 1 shot stopper, but Rohr is not the one asking them.
Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm, Russia) , Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge KSV, Belgium), Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow)
Rohr’s likely first-choice left-back is Brian, with experienced left-back Elderson Echiejile acting as a backup. The former Bendel Insurance defence ace is one of oldest member in the present Eagles’ setup and looks likely that he will keep his place in the squad. Ahmed Musa will also be considered in the squad to Russia as Rohr will be hoping his experience can come in handy against Argentina after his brace against the South Americans in Brazil 2014.
Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa FC, Turkey)
Newly wedded, Kenneth is still in contention to make the flight to Russia. The Turkish-based defence ace will do his career better, if he improves on his weaknesses in Eagles’ coming games.
The former Golden Eaglets’ defender may not be assured of starting lineup, but Rohr and Nigeria seem willing to give him another chance at Russia.
Stephen Eze (Lokomotiv Plovdiv, Bulgaria)
The former FC Ifeanyi Ubah defender is a new member of the squad; thanks to his decent performance in Morocco during CHAN 2018; He is just settling down to football at the big stage. The World Cup maybe a call too early for the hard tackling centre back, but looks good for the Eagles’ central defence role in the years ahead. The paramount objective for Rohr’s ‘new boy’ is gaining experience at this stage while working out with the Big Boys.
Joel Obi (Torino FC, Italy)
Obi is staging a return to the Super Eagles, three years after he was named in the preliminary squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The 26-year-old made his debut for Nigeria on February 9, 2011 in a friendly game with Sierra Leone in Lagos. He went to start in the next 11 games in a row for the Eagles before getting injured near the end of 2012.
Obi has showed so much form for Torino in the Italian topflight this term from his midfield position and look set to take one of the spots in the 23-man team. However, his ability remain match fit to a large extent will determine if he will get Rohr’s nod eventually for Russia 2018.
Moses Simon (KAA Gent, Belgium)
Since Moses Daddy-Ajala Simon received his first call-up by Eagles former coach, Daniel Amokachi in March 2015, the Belgium-based forward has not looked back.
Moses will count on his decent form during the qualifiers and upcoming games to make the 23-man squad to Russia. After making the Dream Team VI’s 35-man provisional squad for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Russia 2018 will be a positive one for Moses.
John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel)
Since marking his debut in March 2013 against Kenya in a 1–1 draw, Ogu is not ready to stay back.
Ogu has previously represented Nigeria in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. He was also a consistent name for the Eagles during the qualifiers and scored Nigeria’s lone goal in the 1-1 draw with Algeria in the last tie of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers at Algeria 1–0 last year.
Making Russia 2018 will be a big boost for the FESTAC boy who have continued to progress in his career in the Israeli topflight.
Tyronne Ebuehi (Ado Den Haag, The Netherlands)
Tyronne currently plays as a right-back for Dutch Eredivisie club ADO Den Haag was born in the Netherlands on December 16, 1995 to a Nigerian father and Dutch mother, has the potentials of a star in the making.
Ebuehi was called up to the Super Eagles for the first time for a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Algeria in November 2016 and has continued to improve on his game in the Dutch topflight.
He was later called up for friendlies vs Senegal and Burkina Faso in March 2017 and joined up with the squad.
Ebuehi, who made his senior debut for Nigeria in a 3-0 friendly win over Togo on 1 June 2017, will be looking to add to that account if he makes Russia 2018.
Olaoluwa Aina (Hull City, England)
Before opting to play for Nigeria in May 2017, Aina has represented England at under-16, under-17, under-18, under-19 and England under-20 levels.
He has good height and can play either as a left or right back. If selected for Russia 2018, it will be great moments for the lad as he will have the opportunity to showcase his career at bigger stage come June.
Junior Ajayi (Al Ahly, Egypt)
‘Junior’ as he is fondly called by fans and admirers’ has promised that he will gate-crash the party to Russia 2018 with top notch shows during the team’s pre tournament games later in the month.
A member of the bronze winning Dream Team IV to the 2016 Olympics’ in Brazil, Ajayi’s form has greatly improved after joining Al Ahly for $2,500,000 from Tunisian side, CS Sfaxien in 2016, he has continued to turn out positive result and look set to do same with the Eagles. Indeed, the battle lines have been drawn.
Uche Agbo (Standard Liege, Belgium)
Uche who got his first call up to the Super Eagles in October 2016 to replace
the injured Leon Balogun for a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Zambia’s Chipolopolo may find it pretty tough breaking the old guard for a starting 11 shirt.
However, the Standard Liege ace is in contention for a backup role if he makes the squad to Russia.
Gabriel Okechukwu (Akwa United)
After a superlative performance for Nigeria at the 2018 African Nations Championship in Morocco, Gabriel is yet to get going and was missing in action when the Uyo-outfit lost 1-0 to Libya’s Al Ittihad last week.
Russia 2018 might be a call too early for the former FC Karpaty Lviv striker.
Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes FC, France)
Yet to play a competitive game for the Super Eagles, Chidozie plays as a central defender for French club FC Nantes on loan from FC Porto.
The Coal-City born defender, Awaziem was called up by Nigeria for two-head friendly against Mali and Luxembourg, on 27 and 31 May 2016.
He made his senior debut on 1 June 2017, starting in a 3–0 win over Togo in Paris in another exhibition game.
At 19, Awaziem who joined FC Porto from Portugal in 2014 may have to continue learning the ropes with the pre-World Cup games. Russia 2018 will be a stake too high for the young man’s shoulders.
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