By Solace Chukwu
Whether he is pounding down the sidewalk in pursuit of criminals, or patrolling the pitch snuffing out danger, one thing is abundantly clear: Ogenyi Onazi is a problem-solver.
When the Super Eagles wheezed and laboured into the Quarter Final of the 2013 Africa Nations Cup on the back of three uninspiring group stage performances, Onazi was parachuted in to outstanding effect.
His inclusion brought balance and calm to the midfield, and was the platform on which the team would eventually win the tournament.
He was conspicuous by his absence at last year’s Confederations Cup, but was Nigeria’s best midfield performer at this summer’s World Cup. He kept the likes of Miralem Pjanic and Lionel Messi relatively quiet (Messi still scored twice: from a free-kick and a rebound of the post; not a lot Onazi could have done about either) and bullied Blaise Matuidi into invisibility (no small ask) before going off injured.
Curiously, in spite of Nigeria’s Second Round showing in Brazil (a joint-best finish), practically none of her players emerged with their reputation significantly enhanced. Compare against the Algerian team who exited at the same stage, and the difference is stark. The likes of Essaid Belkalem, Carl Medjani and Yacine Brahimi have all earned moves, among others following impressive tournaments in Brazil.
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As much as Kenneth Omeruo, who was stellar at the back, is consigned to another season of uncertainty on loan at modest Middlesbrough, Onazi also finds himself at a crossroads.
Onazi is enjoying a growing profile at Lazio, and club president Claudio Lotito has declared that the player can only leave if a release clause of €14 million is met, according to BBC Sport.
Lotito is of course notoriously wily in transfer dealings, but would it be best if Onazi and his agent Jonathan Barnett took the pronouncements of the club at face value? Onazi joined the club back in 2012 and has, in the intervening period, established himself as a full international.
Surely it would not be too hard to find him a club.
If the Lazio brass is refusing to renegotiate the terms of his contract, then perhaps he is not valued in Rome. Certainly, the club’s purchase of Italian midfielder Marco Parolo has added a new dimension to the Eagles’ midfield: the Lombardy native scored handsomely for Serie A surprise package Parma last term. He seems the ideal foil for either of Lucas Biglia or Cristian Ledesma, and is also capable of playing further forward.
It is still unclear what system new manager Stefano Pioli will favour, but unless it is based on three central midfielders, it is hard to see Onazi getting as much playing time as he would like, or even as much as the 29 appearances he managed last term. If Onazi does leave, it might well be Lazio’s loss.
Now, more than ever, feels like the right time for a move. The danger with staying at Lazio is that the player may come to view it as a comfort zone, even in the absence of first-team football. Next comes stagnation, and then inexorable decline.
In John Obi Mikel, Onazi has a window into a possible future, not necessarily pretty, if he fails to seize this opportunity.
Where to go then?
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There was rumoured interest from Premier League Southampton, but that door may have closed with the Saints’ signing of Saphir Taider. Everton, themselves reported admirers, opted for ferocious Bosnian Muhamed Besic in midfield, and he cost a fraction of the asking price Lotito is demanding.
Similarly, Sunderland could do with a midfielder of his calibre. The return of Ki Sung-Yeung to Swansea after a fine loan spell on Wearside, as well as the sale of Jack Colback to Newcastle sees two squad places open up. Ki has been replaced by the hapless Jack Rodwell, in the hope of a revival, and Onazi is ideal candidate to replace Colback’s versatility. The Nigerian is capable of covering at full-back, and contributes in both offensive and defending phases.
Another ideal destination within the Premier League is Crystal Palace.
A pairing of Onazi and Australian Mile Jedinak would fit perfectly: both are skilled ball-winners and tireless in their effort, in line with the club ethos of solid work ethic. However, the instability surrounding the club’s managerial situation may preclude any deal.
A move to a mid-table English club may seem as step down (a view that would be out of touch with football’s present realities though), but in football, it is often better to take a step backward in order to move forward, than to stand still.
Stasis is not an accusation that can be levelled against Onazi on the pitch; hopefully his next career move will mirror his progressive style.
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