Nigerian fans awaited the announcement of the Super Eagles squad to face Mexico with great anticipation. The World Cup is fast approaching, and national team manager Stephen Keshi is running out of opportunities to assess players and decide on the final make-up of his squad ahead of the main event this summer.
The friendly against Mexico in early March provides an invaluable occasion for the “Big Boss” to assess some of his fringe players and to examine some figures who have been on the periphery of the squad over the last few months.
However, with every door opening and another player being invited to stake a claim for a spot on the plane, another sees his chances of travelling whittled away. As some sheep are welcomed (or return) to the fold, others are cast off and slip down the pecking order.
This article presents some of the winners and losers from the recently-announced Nigeria squad.
The complete squad for the March 5 friendly can be found here, courtesy of Goal Nigeria:
Goalkeepers: Vincent Enyeama (Lille FC, France); Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be'er Sheva, Israel)
Defenders: Elderson Echiejile (Monaco FC, France); Efe Ambrose (Celtic FC, Scotland); Godfrey Oboabona (Rizespor, Turkey); Azubuike Egwuekwe (Warri Wolves); Kenneth Omeruo (Middlesbrough FC, England); Juwon Oshaniwa (Ashdod FC, Israel); Joseph Yobo (Norwich City, England); Kunle Odunlami (Sunshine Stars)
Midfielders: John Mikel Obi (Chelsea FC, England); Ogenyi Onazi (SS Lazio, Italy); Ramon Azeez (Almeria FC, Spain); Shehu Abdullahi (Kano Pillars); Ejike Uzoenyi (Enugu Rangers)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow, Russia); Shola Ameobi (Newcastle United, England); Victor Moses (Liverpool FC, England); Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce FC. Turkey); Obinna Nsofor (Chievo Verona, Italy); Bright Dike (Toronto FC, Canada), Imoh Ezekiel (Standard Liege, Belgium); Michel Uchebo (Cercle Brugge, Belgium)
The main headline to emerge from Stephen Keshi’s latest Nigeria squad was the return of Joseph Yobo.
The centre-back has not been called up for a year but has never been replaced as the team’s skipper, leading to endless rumours that he would return.
The centre-back suffered an injury in the opening fixture of the Cup of Nations in early 2013. Once he had recovered—in time for the Super Eagles’ third group match, against Ethiopia—Chelsea youngster Kenneth Omeruo had taken his place, starting an iron grip on the position that has continued to this day.
According to a BBC Sport report by , Yobo expressed his discontent at being overlooked during that tournament and, despite playing an important role as a substitute, was axed from the squad following the competition’s conclusion.
Only now does he return, but his timing couldn’t be better.
Does his comeback represent acknowledgement, on Keshi’s behalf, that his existing defensive options are too inexperienced? Can Yobo do enough, for Nigeria and Norwich City, to seal a fairytale international swansong in Brazil next summer?
While Yobo’s international career seemed to fizzle out during the AFCON in early 2013, Sunday Mba’s exploded into life.
The attacking midfielder scored crucial winners in both the quarter-final against the Cote d’Ivoire and the final against Burkina Faso, etching his name forever into Nigerian folklore in the process.
However, following the tournament, his progress was undermined due to a transfer wrangle between Nigerian clubs Enugu Rangers and Warri Wolves. Mba was prevented from playing for almost the entirety of 2013, losing form and fitness in the process.
French Ligue 2 side CA Bastia offered him an escape route in early January, and Mba swapped inactivity in Nigeria for a relegation battle in Corsica.
Despite his encouraging early showings for the island club, Keshi is seemingly not convinced that the midfielder can replicate his outstanding AFCON form in Brazil. Mba hasn’t made the cut for the Mexico match.
John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi are almost certainly going to take two of potentially three midfield positions for Nigeria. Numerous candidates had been proposed to join them, but for various reasons, all had fallen by the wayside.
Nnamdi Oduamadi impressed at the Confederations Cup but appeared a little uneasy when asked to play as part of the midfield three rather than the forward three. Sunday Mba’s failings have been explored previously, while Nosa Igiebor has largely flattered to deceive for the national side. 2013 was all but a write-off for the Betis man.
Calls for Lukman Haruna to return to the national side seem to have fallen on deaf ears, while Fegor Ogude and John Ogu have tended to look a little too clumsy and clunky alongside Mikel and Onazi.
Joel Obi, for all of his infinite promise, appears unable to escape his injury woes.
It seems now that Almeria midfielder Ramon Azeez is the man most likely to profit from this vacuum of power.
Azeez is a previous captain of Nigeria’s under-20, side and his emergence with the national side has long been anticipated.
Lolade Adewuyi, Chief Editor of Goal Nigeria, said this about Azeez when I spoke to him recently: “[he] has quietly worked his way into the consciousness of Nigerians after leading the U-20 squad impressively a few years ago. He's good on the ball and is likely to play in next month's friendly against Mexico.”
Throughout 2013, Chigozie only missed one Nigeria call-up. He was on the bench for 18 of the national side’s 19 games during the year and was present for both the Cup of Nations triumph and the Confederations Cup.
Sure, he was firmly third-choice ‘keeper, behind Vincent Enyeama and Austin Ejide, but that didn’t seem to matter.
The recent Championship of African Nations, the contest that sees African nations compete with squads made up of entirely domestic-based players, was the perfect opportunity for Agbim to assert himself within Keshi’s thoughts and put pressure on the two stoppers ahead of him.
The tournament turned out to be the thing of nightmares for the Gombe-born player.
He made a series of high-profile blunders, costing the Super Eagles numerous goals and forced Keshi into a tricky position with the media, as the coach was forced to defend, repeatedly, his decision to stick with the embattled gardien.
Agbim’s 2014 went from bad to worse when it was revealed that his club side, Enugu Rangers, had decided to release him from his contract, according to MTN Football, and his omission from Keshi’s squad to face Mexico may all but confirm the end of his international career.
Last week I published a feature with Bleacher Report considering 25 youngsters who could make a late push for a place in an African World Cup squad. Young Nigerian striker Imoh Ezekiel was one of the names I posited in that piece…clearly someone was reading!
The Standard Liege forward looks every bit the future of the Super Eagles strike force. He has an assured touch, an electric turn of pace and a mature head in front of goal.
At only 20, Ezekiel certainly needs some refinement, but he is, nonetheless, the kind of striker who can change the complexion of a contest with just a moment of ingenuity or a flash of that irrepressible predatory instinct.
A total of 25 goals in 62 games for Standard, for one so young, tells its own story.
Now, he will get the chance to prove he can replicate this fine form in front of goal for the national side, having been given the nod by Keshi for the Mexico friendly.
Even if Ezekiel stars against the central Americans, any invite to the World Cup would represent a major gamble, particularly considering some of the established strikers who have represented the national side in recent times.
His addition, and the continued overlooking of Victor Anichebe, Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins appears to be a clear signal from Keshi about the direction he seeks for the Super Eagles. Ezekiel’s inclusion is particularly bad news for Ideye Brown, the underperforming Dynamo Kyiv striker who has missed out having only been absent for one squad throughout the whole of 2013.