By Ed Dove
Once again last week was a fine weekend for the Nigerian contingent in the Premier League. However, despite excellent outings for a number of our stars, it was one of the least heralded among them that stole the show.
In the West London derby between Chelsea and Fulham, John Obi Mikel finally got off the mark for the Blues, prompting jubilation among his teammates.
It has taken 185 games for the Super Eagles talisman to break his EPL duck, and now, finally, after 282 outings in all competitions—after picking up almost every honour known to mankind—Mikel finally made the net ripple for Jose Mourinho’s men.
While the goal didn’t quite manage to detract from a wholly uninspiring performance by Chelsea, the fine, agile finish will doubtless live long in the memory of fans for whom Mikel’s key offensive contributions have been about as frequent as Ghanaian victories at the Cup of Nations.
Mikel: Slowly Catching Up with Lampard
Victor Moses’s promising start to life away from Stamford Bridge continued this week despite Liverpool going down 1-0 to both Southampton, in the league, and Manchester United in the English League Cup. The Nigerian superstar offers directness and ferocious pace, dovetailing well with Danny Sturridge, Luis Suarez and, one imagines, Philippe Coutinho when the Brazilian eventually returns from his injury problems.
As well as offering exceptional off the ball work and incisive movement as part of a forward three, Moses has also shown a propensity to drop deeper in his early games under Brendan Rodgers. I was impressed with his ability to do this during the Cup of Nations triumph earlier in the year, particularly in the rout of Mali. His increasing involvement in the build-up play and his improved game time on Merseyside will surely be of benefit to the national side over the coming months.
Down in the Black Country, Victor Anichebe entered the fray as a substitute to great effect as his new club, West Bromwich Albion, downed Sunderland.
Anichebe: A Change of Pace
The Black Cats defence was—admittedly—not up to much, but Big Vic’s strength and poise was evident as he controlled and protected the ball well before laying it off to Morgan Amalfitano to score the side’s third goal.
The former Everton man entered the contest as a 68th minute substitute for Nicholas Anelka, his powerful play as a target man coming as a welcome contrast to Le Sulk’s deeper, more creative influence. The pair’s contrasting styles, as well as the pacy work of Shane Long, give the Baggies some exciting options in attack.
If Anichebe continues in this encouraging vein, then surely it should be he, rather than Shola Ameobi, who offers the presence and muscle in the Super Eagles’ attack.
Over at Ameobi’s home stadium, St. James' Park, Newcastle United’s fans were sent into a state of shock by the Magpies’ inadequacies and the bullish determination of their opponents, Hull City. Last year’s Championship play-off winners secured one of the results of the season by beating Alan Pardew’s boys 3-2.
Here, Nigeria’s own Sone Aluko was the star of the show, the game’s outstanding individual and, ultimately, the difference-maker.
Aluko: Does What the Night does to the Day
Predicted by many to be little more than relegation fodder before the season began, the Tigers have already picked up seven points, losing only to Manchester City and Chelsea, and currently sit in eleventh place after five games. Many observers are being forced to reassess their expectations of the team and their previous evaluations of Hull’s squad.
Aluko, along with Robbie Brady, looks to be a natural fit in the Premier League, while Steve Bruce’s decision to sign Tommy Huddlestone from Tottenham and also acquire Jake Livermore on loan has given the central midfield both creativity and combativeness.
Against Newcastle, the Nigerian forward, whose season was curtailed by injury so cruelly last term, was positively glowing. He provided the assist for Brady on 26 minutes and then sealed the clash 15 minutes before the end with a delicious volley. The technique was sublime, the inventiveness admirable and the spectacle—breathtaking.
Beyond providing his team with an invaluable three points and the precious, morale-boosting reality of an away victory, Aluko has announced himself to the EPL with a collection of impressive performances.
While the season will be long and perilous, Hull’s early performances have changed the perception of the team within the context of the league. Already, they are no longer the new boys, the rabbit in the headlights, they look a composed, competent unit, menacing on the break, lethal down the flanks and more than capable of dictating a game on their terms.
Aluko has been, and will continue to be, a key feature of this reassessment.
Aluko & Nigeria: Soon to be Reunited?
For Nigeria, this can only be very encouraging news. After over half a season devastated by injury, Aluko has burst into the Premier League with a point to prove and with the ability to prove it, very forcefully, and very emphatically.
Surely his very pertinent, very visible contributions to the tapestry of the EPL will not be going unnoticed by Stephen Keshi. The former Aberdeen man was ignored ahead of the Malawi qualifiers, but with his pace, versatility and innovation on show for all to see, it can’t be long before the Big Boss decides to recruit him back into the fold.
Aluko has imbued everyone involved with Hull with the confidence that the team are not merely here to make up the numbers, but are here to genuinely compete with the big boys and be proactive, rather than merely reactive. There is no reason why the forward, who already has two caps for the national side, cannot prompt a similar response among Nigerians.