By Kris Voakes
When Alberto Aquilani’s head injury ruled him out of tonight’s friendly between Italy and the Republic of Ireland in Liege, it came as a surprise to many that Torino defender Angelo Ogbonna was the man called up to replace him.
But while it was widely predicted that the big centre-half would be brought into the Nazionale setup sooner or later, it is the timing of Cesare Prandelli’s call which comes as something of a shock.
Ogbonna looked to be one of Italy’s great defensive hopes as little as a year ago. As Toro completed their 2009-10 home calendar against Vicenza, the centre-back was watched – as exclusively reported by Goal.com – by Everton manager David Moyes, just one of a string of bosses alerted to the talents of the Italy under-21 stopper; months earlier he had been the subject of apparent interest from Arsenal. But a year on, the Granata’s final home game saw them slump to a 2-0 defeat to Padova, ending a forgettable campaign for both club and player.
|ANGELO OGBONNA | The making of an international
Caps: 8 for Italy U-21
With each transfer window has come interest from clubs both home and abroad, invariably met by resistance and threats from Toro fans towards embattled president Urbano Cairo. A banner reading “Se vendi Ogbonna prepara la tomba” (If you sell Ogbonna, prepare the coffin) was a regular on the road with Granata followers during January’s sales period.
But the truth is that Ogbonna’s form – particularly in 2011 – has not been that of a future international defender. Whether that has been as a consequence of the ugly atmosphere around Turin’s second club caused by the off-pitch battles between the fans and Cairo, or due to something more fundamental, is unclear.
What is for certain is that the Italian of Nigerian parentage has not been playing to his potential, resulting in him being overlooked on occasion for the likes of Francesco Pratali and Valerio Di Cesare.
Possessive of superb strength and a great left foot, Ogbonna has seemed set for stardom for some time. But as Toro have increasingly looked for a leader on the pitch to drag them through their troubles over the last two years, the defender has slipped further from the pedestal he was placed on when he first broke into the starting XI.
What’s more, technical deficiencies – such as his poor sense of anticipation to high balls played either side of him, and his susceptibility to attacks to his right – have been more and more in evidence of late.
|"At a time when Prandelli has been warning his players they must be playing regularly, it will be interesting to see whether he'll continue to pick a defender playing Serie B football."
So Prandelli’s decision to choose tonight’s clash with Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland as the moment to introduce Ogbonna to the big stage is an intriguing one. Looking from the outside in, one would suggest that now is the right time for the centre-back to cut his ties in Turin and secure Serie A football elsewhere, but he has reiterated his desire to sign a new contract with Torino in the days since his weekend call-up.
At a time when the Italy boss has been warning his players that they must be playing regularly to be considered for selection, it will be interesting to see whether he might continue to invite a defender playing his football on Saturdays instead of Sundays between now and Euro 2012 - particularly if Ogbonna’s performances continue to regress.
If he comes off the bench tonight he will be the first Torino player to represent Italy since Alessandro Rosina in October 2007, and a good display could send him heading for the exit door. For the sake of his progression, that may be no bad thing.
This is his opportunity to remind everyone of the player he can be. Technical imperfections can be ironed out more easily by better coaches at bigger clubs, and a successful international future will help to persuade Serie A observers of his long-term suitability to a higher level.
Whether the timing is right or not, this is his opportunity to stake a claim for an Italy jersey and also for a move away from Torino. He simply has to take it.
If he snubs the chance, he could well be a one-cap wonder, but if he impresses he will be just another early success story from Cesare Prandelli’s reign as Azzurri boss.