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Can Rohr’s youngsters give him AFCON?

Super Eagles gaffer Gernot Rohr has never hidden his preference for young players in the national team. In this report, ’TANA AIYEJINA takes a look at the performances of some of the youngsters invited to the national team by the German

PAUL ONUACHU

Some say he is the new Rashidi Yekini; perhaps that’s a tag too heavy for the young shoulders of two-cap Eagles striker, Paul Onuachu.

At 6ft 7 inches, he stands taller than the legendary all-time Eagles scorer Yekini (6ft3in).

Again, the way he rifled home the sizzling winner less than 10 seconds into the friendly against Egypt last month at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba, also brought back memories of the late Yekini.

The 24-year-old, who was making his first start after his debut four days earlier in a substitute role, calmly controlled a long ball; left an Egyptian defender sprawling in his wake, and rifled home a tantalising pile-driver.

The goal, scored after just eight seconds, meant Onuachu became the second player to score the fastest goal in Africa.

His goal is two seconds shy of the record held by Club Africain’s Ghazi Ayadi, who netted after six seconds in a 2-1 win against CS Sfaxien at Stade Olympique de Radès on December 6, 2017.

An excited Rohr said afterwards, “I think this is the earliest goal I have seen as a coach and it’s coming from the kick-off. It was very nice from Paul Onuachu.

“We have other profiles for the striker position; we now have this tall guy (Onuachu) from Denmark. He did very well but he has to improve still.”

Well, the German feels vindicated after he replaced Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho with the FC Midtjylland man in an attempt to strengthen his attack.

Before the Seychelles and Egypt games, Iheanacho had just one goal in 25 Premier League outings this term, which contrasts starkly with Onuachu’s form in recent seasons.

The forward netted 18 in 36 games in the Danish topflight in the 2016/17 season, 10 in 22 the season after and already has 14 in 23 so far this term.

However, despite the gangling hit-man’s rising profile in the Scandinavia, he’s hardly known back home.

In 2016, and with score tied at 1-1, the then 21-year-old announced himself to the world when he unleashed a low shot past keeper Sergio Romero in the 77th minute to help Midtjylland beat giants Manchester United 2-1 in their Europa Cup Round of 32 clash.

Onuachu is the latest in a long list of striking experimentations that Rohr has undertaken, having tried out the likes of Iheanacho, Brown Ideye, Simy Nwankwo, Junior Lokosa and Junior Ajayi with minimal success.

This has made the Eagles rely much on wingers Ahmed Musa, Kalu and Simon Moses for the goals.

With China-based Ighalo looking certain to lead the Eagles attack at the 2019 AFCON, Onuachu must work hard to grab the other striker’s slot.

He’s got aerial advantage and is versatile, a reason why rather than play behind first choice forward Ighalo, he is expected to be an alternative to Rohr’s typical 4-3-3 approach in a 4-3-2-1 formation as spearhead.

SAMUEL KALU

Athletic winger Samuel Kalu made a breakthrough into Nigeria’s national side in October last year, shortly after joining French Ligue 1 side Bordeaux from Belgian outfit Gent.

He scored his first international goal for the Super Eagles against Libya, that same month, grabbing the final goal in a 4–0 whitewash of the North Africans.

It has already proved to be a worthwhile season for the 21-year-old, who has scored four goals in 30 matches in all competitions: three in Ligue 1 and one in Coupe de la Ligue.

Kalu is very quick, direct, powerful and physically-strong. He has a good cross too, something that excites Bordeaux coach Eric Bedouet.

“For a centre forward, wingers like Kalu and Francois Kamano are precious,” Bedouet said. “Kalu’s crossing is very, very good…Look at the build of Kalu – he’s capable of stopping with the ball, then, accelerating again, making the difference in a game all in one action.”

“He (Kalu) has an interesting profile, with speed and technical qualities,” Bordeaux president Stephane Martin told the press, indicating the reasons why the player was signed.

His football journey started at the Golden Boot Academy in Nigeria before he moved to Europe in 2016.

After stints at Slovakia’s AS Trecin and Gent (Belgium), he arrived on August 6, 2018 as Bordeaux’s first signing of the season.

Rohr, a former player and coach at Bordeaux, has made the youngster a regular in his post-2018 World Cup squad after handing him his international debut against Seychelles in a 2019 AFCON qualifier last September.

He didn’t disappoint as he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The exciting Kalu was menacing all day and capped a fine outing with an assist.

Aside the goal against Libya, Kalu excelled in an unfamiliar wing-back role against Bafana Bafana in Johannesburg as the Eagles were held to a 1-1draw but qualified for the 2019 AFCON with a game to spare.

Man-of-the-match Kalu forced the opener and despite his unusual deployment, took players on, combined well with Musa, who then whipped in the opener.

An all-round performance also had him making desperate tackles defensively to help his side avert danger twice.

However, a sad incidence happened; Kalu’s mother was kidnapped in February. Ozuruonye Juliet Kalu was seized from her car in Abia State.

The kidnappers refused to release Mrs Kalu after an initial N3m ransom they demanded was paid, and asked for a further N50m before they would let go off her. She was released after a week in the custody of the kidnappers.

HENRY ONYEKURU

Henry Onyekuru has been in fine form with Galatasaray in the Turkish Süper Lig and it’s no wonder why a few European top clubs are attempting to pry him from Everton’s hands.

According to CalcioMercato, PSG, Monaco, Napoli, and Borussia Dortmund are all monitoring the 21-year-old.

Onyekuru is currently the joint fourth-leading scorer in Turkey, with 11 goals in 23 appearances, and will return to Everton at the end of the season, where he is under contract until 2022.

Everton purchased Onyekuru in the summer of 2017 from Belgian side KAS Eupen for €8m.

Onyekuru hit 22 goals and registered nine assists during the 2016/17 campaign to finish as joint top scorer in Belgium’s topflight and spark a race for his signature.

Everton fended off the interest of clubs, including Arsenal and Celtic, but have not been able to play him despite earning seven caps for the Eagles and scoring nine goals in 19 league matches on loan at Anderlecht last season.

Onyekuru made his senior debut for Nigeria in a 3–0 friendly win over Togo on June 1, 2017.

Everton are, however, growing hopeful that he can meet the complicated work permit criteria based on playing in the Champions League and Europa League for the Turkish giants as well as his national team.

Onyekuru, who turns 22 in early June, featured in all four of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers that took place after the 2018 World Cup.

Injury put paid to his hopes of playing in the other eight internationals in 2018, including the three group games Nigeria played at the World Cup in Russia, but the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt in June is another chance for him to strengthen his work permit claims.

SAMUEL CHUKWUEZE

A 2015 U-17 World Cup winner, Chukwueze only made his Villarreal first team debut on September 20, 2018, coming on in a 2–2 home draw against Rangers in the 2018/19 Europa League.

Ever since, the 19-year-old has become one of the most exciting young talents in La Liga, which has caught the attention of Premier League sides, Arsenal and Leicester City.

His most recent performance of note was against a star-studded Barcelona, when the young Nigerian fascinated the global audience with some amazing displays that stood him out of the park in the thrilling 4-4 stalemate at the Estadio de la Cerámica.

And it was the 2015 U-17 World Cup Bronze Boot winner’s goal and assist that drew the Yellow Submarine level from 2-0 down, before they went ahead 4-2.

But late goals from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez saved Barcelona from defeat but Chukwueze had announced himself as a youngster who had washed his hands well and could have dinner with elders like Messi, Suarez and their likes. Chukwueze also made the news after starring in the exhilarating 4-4 draw.

He’s played 40 games this term, 20 in La Liga, and scored nine goals from his midfield role.

He caught the eye on his Eagles debut last November in a goalless draw against Uganda in Asaba.

Spotting the number 10 jersey, Chukwueze was a nightmare for the big and physical Ugandans, running rings round their defence and thrilling the crowd at the Asaba stadium.

VICTOR OSIMHEN

Osimhen became one of the hottest teenage prospects in world football after his 10 goals in seven matches at the 2015 U-17 World Cup led Nigeria to a fifth title at that level.

He won the competition’s Golden Boot and the Silver Ball awards, which earned him the CAF Youth Player of the Year award in 2015, before signing for German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in 2017.

However, a combination of injuries, limited playing time, loss of form and an apparent lack of faith from the Wolfsburg coaches soon saw Osimhen surplus to requirement. He looked to tow the path of former Golden Eaglets forwards Solomon Okoronkwo and Macauley Chrisantus, who both failed to make the grade in Germany despite their high profiles as teenagers.

But a successful start to a season-long loan spell at Charleroi has revived the career of the youngster, which prompted a recall from Rohr for last November’s games against South Africa and Uganda.

It was the first time he would get a national call-up since June 2017 for a friendly against Togo, and his recall followed a rich vein of form for the Belgian side.

So far, he’s played 28 games overall and scored 13 goals, 12 of them in the Belgian topflight league.

Having also been invited for last month’s games against Seychelles, the 20-year-old was released from the Super Eagles squad to help rescue the national U-23 side, who had lost the first leg 2-0 to Libya in an Olympic qualifier in the first leg.

Osimhen rose to the occasion, scoring three goals and creating an assist as the team won 4-0 in Asaba to prove his doubters wrong.

He would be hoping to rekindle the U-17 and U-23 magic at the AFCON, if he gets a place in the final squad.

Ola Aina

Having played for England at U-16, U-17, U-18, U-19 and U-20 levels, defender Ola Aina decided to represent Nigeria, the country of his parents.

The 22-year-old made his Eagles debut in 2017 and was named in the preliminary 30-man squad for the 2018 World Cup, but failed to make the final 23 players for the trip to Russia.

A Chelsea player, the 22-year-old was one of a huge number of players sent on loan by the Blues but the Nigeria star has shone in Serie A with Torino this season after impressing for Hull City in another loan deal in the Championship last term.

Torino are reportedly ready to turn the wing-back’s loan spell into a £8.67m permanent deal.

Now Torino have reportedly agreed a deal for next summer to take up their option of buying the 22-year-old.

The Italians are thought to have weighed up an offer in the January transfer window but decided to bide their time.

An injury blow ruled him out of the Eagles’ games last month but he could be back in time to fight for a place in the AFCON squad.

Rated as one of the most in-form Nigerian players in Europe, Aina has a goal to his name in Serie A this term, glancing home a header against William Troost-Ekong’s Udinese.

SEMI AJAYI

Semi Ajayi was on Saturday named the Championship Player of the Month of March after scoring five goals in five matches for Rotherham United.

Ajayi was in his goal-scoring form in March for Rotherham, finding the net five times from the midfield in the month under review.

The 25-year-old netted a brace against Blackburn and Queens Park Rangers and a goal against Norwich in their only two wins from four games in March.

The Rotherham United star, who also doubles as a defender, made his Eagles debut last year when he was introduced for injured right-back Chidozie Awaziem in the 73rd minute of the encounter and put in a decent showing to help the Eagles to a comfortable victory.

He’s played five times for the national team.

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