By Ed Dove
While Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o may have stolen the headlines and the attention ahead of the Champions League Last 16 first-leg matches, few African players could be happier with their showing than Michael Olaitan.
At the end of last year, the Nigerian forward was a back-up for Olympiakos, feasibly the weakest side to have escaped their Champions League group. At the time of writing, he leads the line for the Greek giants, slayers of Manchester United, and with one foot in the quarter-final.
The departure of Konstantinos Mitroglou, a goal machine and all-round star man, might have derailed lesser sides, but Olympiakos haven’t missed a beat in the Greek Super League since his move to Fulham. Instead, players such as Olaitan and Argentine forward Javier Saviola have stepped forward and the Pireaus-based club have continued their goal-scoring form in domestic football—they are currently 20 points clear at the top of the Greek first division.
Few gave them much of a chance against Manchester United in their Last 16 match-up, yet Thrylos, a rag tag bunch of Ligue 1 rejects, loanees and Greek internationals not only managed to beat David Moyes’ men, they have also given themselves a good platform to progress.
Olaitan | Enjoying the Experience of playing against Vidic and Ferdinand
Olaitan may not have scored, but his intelligent forward play troubled Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand and created space for his team-mates to operate in.
He has, once again, been overlooked by Stephen Keshi for the national squad but according to Sunday Oliseh, writing on his personal Twitter account, Olaitan has the quality to star for the Super Eagles during the World Cup
Even though fellow Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic was cup-tied and thus unable to play for the Blues in their match against Galatasaray, John Obi Mikel still couldn’t find himself in Jose Mourinho’s starting XI.
Mikel did make an appearance, however, coming on as a 67th minute replacement for Andre Schurrle. With Chelsea losing impetus within the contest, the Nigerian helped the Pensioners to regain some composure and ensure that Gala didn’t add to Aurelien Chedjou’s equalising goal.
Chinedu Obasi only featured for 20 minutes against Real Madrid during Schalke 04’s devastating defeat.
The German side were pulped 6-1 by Los Blancos, but only one of those goals was conceded while the Nigerian winger was on the pitch.
Schalke are almost certainly out of the tournament, robbing Obasi of an invaluable stage upon which to demonstrate his qualities to Keshi ahead of the World Cup.
In truth, however, following the forward’s horrible fortune with injuries over recent months, he will be content to re-establish himself within the Miners’ first XI and to complete his return to full fitness.
Obasi | Modest Expectations
In the Europa League, the continent’s second-tier club competition, five Nigerians went into the Round of 32, but only one has progressed to the Final 16. The tournament has not proved to be a happy hunting ground for Super Eagles far and wide this term.
Nosa Igiebor, the wild dog of Nigerian football, is the only one of the nation’s stars still standing in the competition. Igiebor’s side Real Betis overcame Russian side Rubin Kazan; a 1-1 draw at home was succeeded by a 2-0 victory in the East.
Gabriel Calderon’s side now proceed to face Sevilla in a fascinating local derby.
While Sevilla currently sit comfortably in eighth place in La Liga, however, Betis are rooted to the foot of the division, having claimed only 14 points from 25 games. Will Betis forsake the Europa League to concentrate on retaining their spot in the top flight? Or could they approach the continental competition without pressure, liberated by an escape from their dire domestic showings?
Igiebor was unable to feature in the second leg due to a relapse with a knee injury that has plagued him for some months. Nosa has struggled to find any kind of consistency this season due to knee injuries and has featured in only eleven league matches for his side.
Nosa | Another Season Derailed
It remains to be seen whether he can feature in either leg against Sevilla, or whether he can perform well enough over the coming months to reassert himself within Stephen Keshi’s plans.
Nigeria’s other four Europa League representatives may have had better fortune with their fitness than Igiebor, but none have made it to the Last 32.
Genk’s Nigerian striker Kim Ojo watched on as his side crashed out to Anzhi Makhachkala, while the Dynamo Kyiv pair of Ideye Brown and Lukman Haruna missed out against Valencia. Brown, who has been overlooked by Stephen Keshi for the latest Nigeria squad, laboured for the full 90 minutes in Spain but was unable to set Kyiv on their way to overcoming a 2-0 deficit from the first leg.
Keshi has also resisted calls to return Lukman Haruna to the national side. The midfielder’s showing at the Estadi de Mestalla will have done little to convince the Big Boss that he was wrong as the former AS Monaco man was replaced after 66 minutes.
The greatest disappointment might be, perhaps, Ogenyi Onazi. The Europa League has meant a lot to the young defensive midfielder in the early portion of his career and the international starlet will have anticipated a longer run in the competition.
Onazi played the entire 180 minutes, both legs, against Ludogorets Razgrad but struggled to protect his defence, particularly in the second leg, when the pair played out a 3-3 thriller. The Bulgarian side completed one of the upsets of the round and go on to play Valencia in the next round.
Nigerians will be hoping that Onazi can enjoy better fortunes this summer.