Babajide Alaka | Deputy Editor
The Super Eagles’ first match after becoming African champion is around the corner and Coach Stephen Keshi, as he did with the list of players invited for the Africa Cup of Nations has sprung some surprises – the greatest being the exclusion of Joseph Yobo, the captain of the team.
He has also included a raft of greenhorns like Nnamdi Oduamadi, Babatunde Michael and John Ogu in the list of 15 players based abroad that will join the nine home-based lads that have been invited from the Nigeria Professional Football League clubs.
Whilst the exclusion of Yobo can be explained away as being the irrelevance of the captain to the current setup, the exclusion of Juwon Oshaniwa and Ejike Uzoenyi shows that the coach is ready to take the hard decisions.
The return of Obafemi Martins will work in two ways. Whilst the Levante striker knows that if Emmanuel Emenike were fit, he would not have been called up – he knows that he has got to deliver big time against Kenya or the dream of continuing to play in the Nigeria national team set up may be gone for good.
Chibuzor Okonkwo is another player that has been on the fringes of the team and has been given another chance to stake a claim to either the left back slot or as a substitute for the right back position.
But the message is loud and clear – no player is too big that he cannot be dropped.
This will be like Martins’ first cap for the Eagles against the Republic of Ireland on May 29, 2004, where he ran the defenders ragged, so expect something similar from the striker.
The exclusion of Ikechukwu Uche also tells its own story – it will not be business as usual. The Villarreal striker was off the radar in South Africa and he himself must have wondered what went wrong. The weekend after being excluded from the Super Eagles list to play Kenya, he went on to score two goals for his club in the Segunda – the exclusion paying quick dividends you will say.
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Though Keshi has come out to say that Yobo was excluded because ‘he was not needed’ for the game against Kenya, there is no way that will assuage the doubTs that have been sowed that the Fenerbahce defender is no longer as important to the Super Eagles as before.
And with just four caps away from becoming Nigeria’s first centurion, the coach must know that variant meanings will be read into the captain’s exclusion even though it may all be altruistic on the coach’s part – his bit part in winning the Nations Cup will be playing at every critic’s mind.
And he also defended the invitations extended to the pair of Ogu and Babatunde, describing them as ‘hungry’.
“We have a lot of young, good players out there that are hungry to play for this country, and you just need to encourage them to boost their morale," said Keshi.
“We cannot keep relying on older players every day. With an eye to the future, we want to have ready replacements for ageing talents.
''I have watched Babatunde Michael play; he is going to be a fantastic player and we have a lot of them outside there, young ones that are hungry to play for this country that you guys need to help build,” he added.
So expect all Nigerian players to raise their game as the qualifiers gather steam and the Confederations Cup gets nearer as not one player has a guaranteed starting berth in Keshi’s Super Eagles.