By Kayode Ogundare:
Nigeria’s Super Eagles became the first African nation to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Zambia last Saturday in Uyo. The Eagles achieved this feat in five games, garnering an unassailable 13 points to beat Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria to the sole ticket.
completesportsnigeria.com provides an overview of the 37 players who sweated to ensure Nigeria’s flag will be flown for a sixth time at the FIFA World Cup…
Ikechukwu Ezenwa 3 GAMES (270minutes)
The greatest beneficiary of Carl Ikeme’s illness, Ezenwa started the first two games of the qualifiers on the bench and an injury to Dan Akpeyi on the eve of the home game against Cameroon was the big break the home-based shot-stopper needed to announce himself on the big stage. Subsequently he was in goal for the last three games and discharged himself creditably, conceding one goal but shutting Cameroon out in the 4-0 victory in Uyo last September. He was the only NPFL player to taste action in the qualifying series so far.
Shehu Abdullahi 5 games (300 minutes)
Cyprus-based Abdullahi is one of the most consistent players during the qualifiers. He started from the bench in the first game against Zambia in Ndola before coming on for a cameo 5 minutes appearance but gradually warmed his way into Gernot Rohr’s heart to make the right full-back position his own, culminating in a Man of the Match performance against Zambia last Saturday. He’s one of only six players to play a part in each of the five games played so far.
Elderson Echiejile 5 games (440 minutes)
Echiejile was 10 minutes away from becoming only the second player to play every single minute of Nigeria’s five games before he was stretchered off in the 80th minute to be replaced by Ola Aina. Nevertheless, he did enough to prove himself indispensable to Gernot Rorh’s plans during the qualifying series.
Troost Ekong 5 games (450 minutes)
One half of the famed Super Eagles ‘Oyinbo Wall’ – Leon Balogun being the other half – Troost-Ekong holds the distinction of being the only player to have played every single minute of Nigeria’s five games so far in the qualifiers. His understanding with Balogun has drawn comparisons with stellar defence combos like Stephen Keshi/Uche Okechukwu and that of the Atlanta Olympic Gold medal winning pair of Okechukwu and Taribo West.
Leon Balogun 4 games (360 minutes)
A rock in the heart of the defence, Balogun missed only the first game away in Zambia to injury but has been an ever-present figure in the heart of defence, building a telepathic understanding with Troost-Ekong. The German-based defender was particularly outstanding in the 4-0 crushing of Cameroon in Uyo and in other games too. Pundits are already tipping him as a future national team captain for his work-rate and temperament.
Wilfred Ndidi 5 games (368 minutes)
The rise of Ndidi’s career has coincided with the good run of the Super Eagles during the qualifiers and the Leicester City star has been nothing but impressive in all the games in which he featured.
He started four of the five games and came on as a late substitute for captain Mikel Obi in the 3-1 win over Algeria in Uyo. Huge talent and one of the first names on the roster for a spot in midfield, regardless of the tactical formation to be employed.
Ogenyi Onazi 5 games (386 minutes)
Team vice-captain, Onazi’s importance to the Super Eagles continued to grow by the day and his tireless running and ability to break-up opposition play has been one of the strengths of the team. Injury cut short his participation in the last two games but he’s sure to be around for the long haul.
John Obi Mikel 5 games (395 minutes)
Captain fantastic, Mikel is finally living up to the huge talent he promised as a youngster. He’s practically dragged the Super Eagles to the World Cup with admirable selflessness. Like a true general, Mikel led his troop to the Promised Land, winning a World Cup ticket for Nigeria while leading from the front. He showed, right from the first day, that he was a capable leader and his influence on and off the pitch has been described as motivational for the younger players in the team. Mikel played a part in all five games and was a positive influence even when substituted.
Moses Simon 4 games (327 minutes)
Full of guile and trickery, Simon provided options for the Super Eagles attack with his ability to play on either flank effortlessly and his dribbling skills. Apart from the game against Algeria whjen he was an unused substitute, he started the other four games and got the goal in the 1-1 draw in Cameroon.
Moses is also capable of playing as a top man and able to vary his game as occasion demanded. He’s one of Rorh’s most trusted men upfront.
Victor Moses 4 games (360 minutes)
The Super Eagles’ topscorer with three goals from four games. One of the hardest working players on the pitch, Victor Moses was a thorn in the flesh of Nigeria’s opponents in the four games he played and created most of the chances from which the Super Eagles scored goals. He bears the brunt of many vicious kicks in the game but a World Cup ticket in the kitty will be enough compensation for the Chelsea man. Still one of Nigeria’s best players by a mile.
Odion Ighalo 3 games (230 minutes)
After missing the first and sitting out the second, Ighalo started the last three of the Super Eagles qualifying games, playing a cumulative 230 minutes.
The China-based striker sparked celebrations with the first goal in the 4-0 annihilation of Cameroon in Uyo and was generally a thorn in the flesh of the Indomitable Lions over two games. He has just one goal in three games but that does not take away his contribution to the team’s march to Russia. His hold-up play and footwork is still one of the best in the business.
Mikel Agu 3 games (107 minutes)
The Super Eagles second Mikel, Agu came on for his namesake and captain Mikel Obi in his first two games but was called upon to replace the injured Onazi against Zambia in Uyo. He picked his first national team career yellow card for dangerous play but the moment he got into his strides, he settled down and combined well with Ndidi to provide cover for the back-four. His energy in the middle of the park will be vital going forward.
Alex Iwobi 3 games (188 minutes)
The inspired substitution that turned the game on it’s head. He came on in the 66th minute for Simon and eight mniutes later he scored the goal that will take Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, same way he scored Nigeria’s first goal in Ndola against Zambia on Matchday One of the qualifying series. Apart from the goal, Iwobi also caused a lot of anxious moments with his uick-thinking and tireless running. A MotM performance packed in that 24 minutes showing. 8/10
Carl Ikeme 1 Game (90 Minutes)
But for his battle against Leukemia, Ikeme would have been in goal for all of Nigeria’s matches on the road to Russia but he saw action in only the game against Zambia in Ndola, the first victory that set the Super Eagles on the way to nicking the World Cup ticket.
Hopefully, the nation hopes Ikeme gets well enough in good time to be ready for Russia 2018.
Ola Aina 1 Game (10 Minutes)
The Chelsea loanee undoubtedly would have envisaged a better debut but Ola Aina got thrown into the deep end for his first international with Nigeria having to defend a one-goal lead against the relentless Zambian who kept knocking and asking questions. Aina did well in the 10-minutes he was on the pitch and could have easily gotten an assist in the last minute for his effort to Victor Moses which nearly resulted in a second goal. In that 10 minutes, Aina showed flashes of brilliance of what to expect in Russia.
Kenneth Omeruo 2 Games (165 Minutes)
Club troubles obviously affected Omeruo’s participation during the World Cup qualifiers as he couldn’t build on his involvement in the first two games. He was on for 90 minutes against Zambia in Ndola and played 65 minutes in the 3-1 victory over Algeria before going off for Abdullahi Shehu. Since then, he’s not got another look-in but, with the World Cup ticket in the bag, Omeruo will be challenging for a spot in the final team to Russia.
Brown Ideye 1 game (73 Minutes)
Brown Ideye was in the starting lineup for the Matchday One game in Zambia and did excellently well, holding up the ball nicely to provide an assist as Kelechi Iheanacho raced towards the Zambia box for Nigeria’s second goal in the 2-1 victory.
Since then he’s been overlooked for a call-up and an indifferent form in China has not helped his cause but Ideye will be buoyed to hope for a recall seeing as fellow China-based striker Odion Ighalo has bounced back into reckoning.
Kelechi Iheanacho 4 games (220 Minutes)
Iheanacho’s two goals in four games, he came in as a substitute in the last two games he played, underlined his importance to the Super Eagles march to the World Cup and, despite the seeming preference for Ighalo as the main striker, Rohr will still retain confidence in the ability of the Leicester City star when the preparations for the World Cup proper begins in earnest.
Ahmed Musa 3 games (32 Minutes)
Musa appears to have fallen out of favour with club and country with a meager 32 minutes being his contribution to the World Cup cause. Nevertheless, he’s still one of the oldest players in the team and his experience will become invaluable, especially if he’s able to sort out his club fortunes in good time.
Dan Akpeyi 1 game (90 Minutes)
One would have expected Akpeyi to be the natural successor to the recuperating Ikeme but, after being in goal for the game against Algeria, the South African-based shot-stopper fell to an injury which gave Ikechukwu Ezenwa the opportunity to take his position and the home-based goalkeeper has held on tightly to the number one gloves since then. There are other goalkeepers hovering around the team but a fully-fit Akpeyi will expect first consideration when the opportunity comes.
Oghenekaro Etebo 1 game (90 Minutes)
Many pundits are surprised Portugal-based Oghenekaro Etebo has not played a much more significant role in the Super Eagles match to Russia but coach Gernot Rohr obviously prefers the current midfield trio of Mikel, Onazi and Ndidi – Etebo’s only game, apart from the four minutes cameo in Cameroon, was against Algeria when Ndidi did not start – which has been excellent so far.
However, it is heartening to know that the Rio Olympic bronze medalist presents a different option in a wide variety of positions and that’s why he’s always been in the team albeit as an unused substitute.
Anderson Esiti 1 game (17 minutes)
Belgium-based Anderson Esiti has not had another invitation since his 17 minutes action on Matchday one in Ndola yet that cameo appearance cannot be ignored because he came on at a time the Super Eagles were on the backfoot with incessant attacks from the Zambians who probed relentlessly in search of an equalizer.
Rohr brought Esiti in to replace Ideye and help shore up the midfield but since then neither of the two players have been recalled to the team which eventually booked a sixth World Cup appearance.
Emmanuel DANIEL; Musa MOHAMMED; Uche AGBO; Godwin OBAJE; Chisom ECHUGBULAM; Kingsley MADU; Nosa IGIEBOR; Jamiu ALIMI; Dele ALAMPASU; John OGU; Dele AJIBOYE; Anthony NWAKAEME; Tyrone EBUEHI; Aaron SAMUEL; Chidozie AWAZIEM