The intriguing subplot of the identity of Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper at the World Cup may well be resolved during the Super Eagles’ upcoming friendlies, with coach Gernot Rohr surely desperate for no more unwanted headlines.
After having boasted one of Africa’s finest stoppers—in Vincent Enyeama—for over a decade, a previous area of strength has become a problem position for the West Africans following The Cat’s retirement from the international arena.
Carl Ikeme was introduced as his replacement, but the Wolverhampton Wanderers keeper’s leukaemia diagnosis denied him the opportunity to progress in the role.
It plunged Nigeria into uncertainty midway through their World Cup qualifying campaign, and while Ikeme’s replacement Ikechukwu Ezenwa impressed in the 4-0 victory over Cameroon in Uyo, his showing in the 1-1 draw in the return match prompted speculation that he wouldn’t be up for the job.
Nigeria's starting goalkeeper for their opening World Cup fixture against Croatia should be... — Ed Dove (@EddyDove) March 21, 2018
Ezenwa’s small stature and the stigma attached to Africa-based stoppers counted against the Enyimba man, and Rohr’s decision to assess both Daniel Akpeyi and wonderkid Francis Uzoho in the friendly victory over Argentina was evidence that he isn’t yet fully convinced by the keeper.
However, despite sending goalkeeper coach Enrico Pionetti to Spain to work with Deportivo La Coruna’s Uzoho, the evidence of Rohr’s latest squad selection suggests that he’s confident in Ezenwa.
The reason for this is the decision to overlook Dele Ajiboye, who stepped in at the African Nations Championship to produce a heroic display against Sudan after Ezenwa picked up an injury.
With only a handful of friendlies to go until Nigeria kick off their World Cup campaign against Croatia in Kaliningrad, it’s imperative that attention turns not to the identity of the goalkeeper, but to the relationship between the stopper and his backline.
It’s no longer the time for Rohr to chop and change, to assess and examine, he needs to make a pick and allow that understanding to develop.
Had he turned to Ajiboye—who some elements of the Nigerian media still believe will get his opportunity during the June friendlies—it would have added another element of doubt to an already uncertain zone.
The sensible money is on Rohr starting Ezenwa against Poland on Friday and, barring a calamitous display, sticking with the stopper from thereon out.
The Enyimba man will have ample opportunity to prove his aptitude against Robert Lewandowski, one of Europe’s finest marksmen, in what might be the sternest test of his career.
If he passes it, and demonstrates an improving relationship with centre-backs William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun, then the keeper will be in pole position to start in Russia, with only injury like to deny him a spot in the first XI.
Stop deceiving urself... Akpeyi is miles ahead of Ezenwa in terms of quality. Ezenwa has nothing in him right from Canada 2007 when Chile opened him up like toasted bread — Albert Jr. Akpobowei (@Tamarau_kuro) November 11, 2017
At this late stage, it’s surely too late for Rohr to waste playing minutes on Akpeyi.
The goalkeeper was exposed—making a schoolboy error—in the match against Argentina, and his inclusion would be both an unpopular one with fans and an illogical gamble for Rohr to take.
The only unpredictable element is Uzoho.
The young keeper lacks experience—he’s played just 180 minutes of top flight football and 45 minutes as a Nigeria international—and his recent form with Deportivo’s second side has been muddled.
It’s far from the ideal preparation for the grandest show on earth, and it’s surely too soon to expect Uzoho to develop a relationship with Nigeria’s backline.
Moving forward, while Uzoho may appear primed to be Nigeria’s long-term number one, these are still early days for the 19-year-old, and a confidence-shattering howler at the World Cup might be too sharp a test for a player of his slender years.
Ezenwa, despite his unconvincing showing for Enyimba in midweek, remains the only logical choice for Rohr in an Ajiboye-free squad, and barring calamity, he should cement his status as number one over the next seven days.
Finding a convincing solution—or at least a solution that’s as convincing as possible—to this conundrum would ensure that Nigeria approach the World Cup in a stronger state and with their tails up.
It would also allow Rohr to focus his attentions on some of the other areas of the squad that need work.
Barring injury or a notable run of impressive form, the central defensive duo and midfield three appear to be established, while the starting full-backs will likely be three of Ola Aina, Abdullahi Shehu and Elderson Echiejile.
In attack, Victor Moses, Moses Simon and Alex Iwobi will compete for two of the starting spots, although the other forwards in the current squad know that they must use this international window to convince Rohr either that they belong in the first XI or in the squad.
Falling into the former category is Kelechi Iheanacho, who may see Odion Ighalo’s return to goalscoring form in China as a death knell to his hopes of taking to the field from the off against Croatia.
In the latter category, Ahmed Musa must make use of any afforded gametime to repay the coach’s faith, as his domestic form shows no sign of improving after a January loan move to CSKA Moscow.
And what of Gabriel Okechukwu?
The match-winner for Akwa United in the Aiteo Cup, and Nigeria’s hero at the CHAN, will he get the opportunity to capitalise on Junior Ajayi’s injury and Anthony Nwakaeme’s struggles to assert himself as Rohr’s Plan B off the bench?