COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
On Thursday, as the glitzy lights of the Uefa Champions League dim, its less adored sibling took centre stage. Depending on who you ask, it ranks somewhere in a scale between afterthought and league litmus test: with the best clubs almost disproportionate in their financial advantage, it is arguable that the true test of a league’s level is the strength of its median teams; those which cannot simply spend their way to relevance.
It is also a chance to witness an uncommon Nigerian double-act in a European side.
Israeli champions Hapoel Beer Sheva have midfielder John Ogu and forward Anthony Nwakaeme on the books, and they share a group with Viktoria Plzen, Lugano and Steaua Bucharest, beginning their campaign with a 2-1 triumph over the Swiss side on Thursday.
That last club will of course be familiar to Nwakaeme, who spent three years in Romania before transferring to Israel with Hapoel Ranana in 2013, the majority of those with Universitatea Cluj. From relative obscurity, the 28-year-old has finally burst into relevance, earning a call-up to the national team on the back of strong performances as the Camels claimed a first league for three decades.
Teammate Ogu is however no novice to the international stage, being a regular member of the squad over the last five years. For Hapoel, he is the conductor in the middle of the park, instigating the build-up and helping the team break through lines of pressure with his assured passing range.
On Thursday evening, no Hapoel player made more touches than Ogu, while the Nigerian also registered an 86.4 percent pass-success rate.
In tandem, both were instrumental as the Israeli side advanced from the group stage of last year’s edition, memorably doing the double over Italian giants Internazionale and remaining unbeaten over two legs against Southampton. This, no doubt, made many sit up and take notice; with a kinder draw this time, and Nwakaeme having hit the ground running already (he’s notched four already in European ties this season, as Hapoel failed to negotiate the Champions League qualifiers), they can be hopeful of repeating the feat.
An opening win - albeit in one of the easiest matches in the campaign - is an ideal start.
The question now, given their mutual understanding, is whether they can be similarly as influential for the Super Eagles.
Nwakaeme was a part of the squad for the double-header against Cameroon, and while he was not summoned off the bench, he can be hopeful of involvement further down the line. Interestingly for a man of his build, he has tended to feature more often on the flank at club level, a brief which has arguably improved his all-round game and makes him a more team-oriented forward.
The contrast is, of course, a striker like Odion Ighalo, who is rather more direct and (on the basis of his Cameroon performances) capable of threatening a defence in both directions--Nwakaeme has a more ball-to-feet style, and tends to ghost into scoring positions rather than make runs off the shoulder of the defence. He is, however, quick in open space, a very capable finisher, and obviously a handful physically.
One might say that, as the tie in Yaounde got more fractious earlier this month, the Super Eagles could have used his peculiar strengths more than Kelechi Iheanacho’s, yet it was the latter who was summoned off the bench.
That Iheanacho was then largely ineffectual is no fault of his, but the non-involvement may paradoxically have worked in Nwakaeme’s favour, revealing in rather stark fashion just how he can be useful to the side. His is a particular set of skills alright, one that should see him taken to the World Cup in Russia next year.
The case for Ogu, however, is a little less straightforward.
He is perhaps the biggest victim of the rapacious ascent of Wilfred Ndidi, and has had to make do with cooling his heels and biding his time. That is easy enough to understand: the Leicester City man is undroppable at this point, being Nigeria’s iron lung, and the 29-year-old admittedly lacks the agility and dynamism to displace him.
Less clear is just how he figures in Gernot Rohr’s plans. At times, it has seemed like the German has gone to bemusing lengths to not play him: in both legs vs Cameroon, he opted for wet-around-the-ears youngster Mikel Agu, even when the increasing chaos in the centre of the park in the second leg stemmed from the waning influence of captain and controller John Obi Mikel.
In the previous game, an embarrassing home loss to South Africa, Ogu was cut from the squad altogether, despite being by far the most reliable distributor of the ball in the injury-enforced absence of Mikel.
Rohr’s insistence on reducing the average age of the squad is admirable, but there is a line to be drawn between that and willful self-harm. While a draw was more than merited on the balance of play, Nigeria were unable to see out the game with any real decorum, and needed a very timely save by Ikechukwu Ezenwa to keep the point safe.
Being that the Super Eagles midfield options, Mikel aside, offers mostly energy and ball-winning abilities, having a player like Ogu would seem like a no-brainer. However, to have him and not use him does kind of render it moot.
Perhaps both Ogu and Nwakaeme simply need to do more to convince. It is often the case that players in lesser-fancied leagues need to put in that little bit extra to stand out, for the simple reason that there is less visibility. It really might just be that simple.
In that respect, the Europa League does give them a bigger platform, and on the evidence of Thursday evening's performance, it's one they're primed to capitalise on.