COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Henry Onyekuru is, without doubt, in a very strange place right now.
The subject of extended interest in the summer, he attained closure with a move to Everton, before going out on loan to Anderlecht. This past weekend, he opened his account for the Belgian champions with a well-taken brace in a 3-2 victory over Lokeren. On Tuesday, he will get a first taste of the Uefa Champions League in a visit to mighty Bayern Munich.
While all seems well on that particular front, there seems to be a lot less certainty on the international stage. The 20-year-old made his international bow in the June 1 international friendly against Togo, coming on in the final half hour to somewhat underwhelming effect. Since then, the Super Eagles have played three internationals; he is yet to play another minute.
On the one hand, one might point to the high stakes involved in those three games. A double-header against African champions Cameroon (which now puts Nigeria within one win of a place at the 2018 World Cup) and the first qualifier for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, a competition the Super Eagles have been absent from in the last two editions; hardly occasions to experiment.
Then again, even the nature of his sparse involvement so far has been telling.
While the hype around his considerable ability reached a crescendo in the second half of the 2016/2017 season, affirmation from the national team coaching crew was reluctant, and somewhat belated even. When it did arrive, a 30-minute dive against Togo, with the game already won, hardly screamed approval from Rohr.
Similarly, while he was in the initial squad for the embarrassing loss to South Africa, he was one of those dropped in the final cull. For the double-header against the Indomitable Lions, he was excluded altogether from the 25.
Presumably, he will get a chance in the final qualifier in the group against Algeria, accounting for the possibility of a dead rubber. However, if Gernot Rohr goes into that game needing a win, it is unlikely Onyekuru will be able to stake a claim in a competitive fixture till Nigeria travel to the Seychelles in March.
The danger with this, and even with the more preferable scenario, is that Rohr might consider his team fully formed already.
At this point, it is clear what the German’s first-choice Super Eagles team is, and it has no place for the likes of vice-captain Ahmed Musa and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi. While Onyekuru does hold an advantage over both, in that he has started four of Anderlecht’s six games so far this term, both are enmeshed within the fabric of the squad.
Onyekuru, however, is not, and was dropped to the bench for Sporting's Champions League opener against Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening.
The aftermath of a qualification series is a fraught time for managers, as they have to juggle stability and the desire to make precise improvements to the squad. As such, it is not always as easy as saying he will get his opening eventually.
So far, one of the hallmarks of the Rohr Era is an unflinching loyalty, even in the face of sub-optimal performance and against the peculiar dictates of game-to-game exigency. He has persisted with the midfield duo of Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi, even though their deficiencies in build-up have been quite stark.
He has similarly kept faith with Elderson Echiejile almost obstinately, in spite of the left-back’s continued decline in output and fortitude, and continues to select Shehu Abdullahi (below) at right-back, even with Tyronne Ebuehi now a regular call-up to the team.
Largely, this trait has paid dividends, and the disinclination to rock the boat could be the factor that edges Onyekuru out.
It would be unfortunate, as he is an interesting player, somewhat similar to Moses Simon in terms of style. However, the Gent man has the benefit of having started three of the four World Cup qualifiers, and is handily holding off Musa at this point.
Victor Moses is even more immovable on the left and, when on song, he gives the Super Eagles the sprinkling of stardust that elevates it to a greater level. Onyekuru has similar potential, and can certainly contribute in the present, but is nowhere near this degree of explosiveness just yet.
Therein lies the nub of his dilemma: while he is a gem, he is perhaps not unique enough to truly threaten. He cannot best Moses for explosive skill and flair, Iwobi for ball retention and passing, or either of Simon or Musa for consistency and experience, even though he arguably has greater upside than the latter.
As such, and being apparently unrated by Rohr, barring a calamitous drop in fitness and form from any of the aforementioned, it is increasingly likely Onyekuru will be the odd man out when the squad to Russia is decided.