By Ed Dove
The opening half of a World Cup year represents the final furlong for national coaches. These months provide the manager with a final opportunity to fine tune he squad ahead of the main event and to decide on his tactical approach for the tournament.
Unlike in previous years, Nigeria will (in all certainty) head to Brazil in a position of prosperity and stability. Stephen Keshi has earned the trust of his fans and his players (if not his bosses) over the last two years and should be backed to thrive in Brazil. The coach has cultivated a fine group spirit and team ethic but, having used over 40 players in the last 12 months, must make some difficult decisions about who travels to the World Cup and who stays at home.
He will also have to decide on whether to gamble and include some figures who haven’t featured for the Super Eagles recently, but who may well bring something new to the table.
This article assesses the World Cup hopes of those Nigerians currently plying their trade in the English top flight.
John Obi Mikel
Fitness-permitting, John Obi Mikel is the first name that Keshi pens into his Official FIFA Squad list come the beginning of the summer. Even if Mikel is crocked, you suspect the Big Boss might be tempted to take him anyway.
Having missed out on Africa’s World Cup in 2010, Mikel will be poised to make a major contribution in Brazil. The fact that he is such an influential figure in the national set-up and the manner that the team is constructed to maximise his talents, only underlines his value.
He is one of Chelsea’s elder-statesmen these days and while inconsistencies do remain, there is no doubting Mikel’s place in Keshi’s plans.
Despite some exciting early showings, Victor Moses has gone off the boil at Liverpool. The forward has struggled to earn regular game time, particularly with Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in such fine fettle. Similarly, Brendan Rogers has often employed tactics which have left little place for conventional wide-men, instead encouraging the wing-backs to provide the width and the central strikers to drift wide.
All of this has meant that Moses has become a bit of a peripheral figure at Anfield. His up and down career, it seems, shows little sign of settling down.
Brendan Rogers clearly has faith in his man, however, and Moses has the time and the ability to make a big contribution before the season’s close. Putting a positive spin on things, he will at least arrive in Brazil fresh and keen to leave a lasting impression.
Had Sone Aluko managed to sustain his early season form, he would have represented an opportunity too tempting to resist for Keshi. Unfortunately, injury has once again threatened to derail a very promising campaign.
The forward was charging towards the Championship golden boot last term as his goals propelled Hull City in the direction of the Premier League. An injury suffered halfway through the season meant an extended spell on the sidelines; Aluko was forced to watch on as his team-mates made it to the promised land.
Unfortunately, particularly after starting this year so brightly, the rug has been pulled out from under Aluko’s feet.
The Nigerian has missed over two months with an Achilles problem but could be on the brink of a return to the Tigers’ side. If he can regain his fitness and rediscover the form that made him such a dazzling prospect in the early months of the year, then Aluko might give Keshi a reason to bring him back into the fold.
The potential presence of Peter Odemwingie in the Nigeria squad this summer is less a question of one player, more a subplot in a key narrative that may well shape Stephen Keshi’s 2014.
Odemwingie, along with the likes of Joseph Yobo, Obafemi Martins and Taye Taiwo (all formerly of the Premier League), has largely been overlooked by the Big Boss in recent times. However, as the spectre of the World Cup draws closer, Keshi might be tempted to bolster his squad with the experience and the quality that these men offer.
The Cardiff City forward has, at times, appeared to be the most-likely recall of the aforementioned players. He has never fallen out of the spotlight and remains a prominent figure in discussions concerning the national side.
However, his form since arriving in South Wales has been patchy. Odemwingie has been largely ineffective as part of Cardiff’s forward line and hasn’t scored since early October. Despite his undoubted qualities, he is currently giving Keshi little reason to take another gamble.
At various points in 2013, different media outlets reported that Keshi was keen to take another look at Victor Anichebe and see whether the former-Everton striker could be a good fit within the current Nigeria set-up.
Despite this, no call has been forthcoming.
Since arriving at West Bromwich Albion, ‘Big Vic’ has struggled to assert himself within a struggling side. He has scored once but has failed to become a key member of the first XI and, crucially, has not replaced the contribution that Romelu Lukaku made last term.
Injuries—the bane of Anichebe’s early career—have also played their part in his struggles and it appears that Keshi may now be set on looking elsewhere for his presence up front.
Shola Ameobi clearly hasn’t forced his way into the Nigeria set-up because of his goal threat. The striker, who has spent his entire career at Newcastle, has never been a prolific contributor. Indeed, in 300 appearances for the Magpies, he has scored just over 50 goals—a strike rate of one in six.
Despite this, the forward brings a lot to the table. He offers presence and experience up front and is adept at bringing others into play.
He seems to be a favourite of Keshi as well. Ignoring the confusion and controversies that prevented him from featuring at the Cup of Nations, Ameobi has regained the manager’s faith through some fine recent showings for the Super Eagles, not least in the recent friendly against Italy at Craven Cottage.
The Nigerian Geordie should expect to travel to Brazil.