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Has Kenneth Omeruo done enough to start for Nigeria at the Afcon?

9:31 am AEST 9/5/19
Kenneth Omeruo of Nigeria during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Nigeria and Iceland
Gernot Rohr may need to put sentiment aside and opt for the Leganes defender at the expense of rusty Leon Balogun

Gameweek 36 in La Liga brought about one of the season’s unforeseen results as Leganes picked up a 3-0 success at Sevilla.

The Seville outfit were touted as strong favorites to continue their Champions League chase, but Mauricio Pellegrino’s side stunned fans at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan to thwart their opponents’ top four hunt.

It was a result borne out of sheer effort and an amazing rearguard action by the Cucumber Growers, with the impressive Kenneth Omeruo playing a large part in.

Particularly noteworthy was that Lega restricted Joaquin Caparros’ side to just seven attempts at goal for the entire game, with one chance coming within the 18-yard box and not a single big chance created.

For a bit of context, the last time Los Rojiblancos failed to muster a huge opportunity in a league game was against fifth-placed Valencia at the end of March in a 1-0 home defeat. Before that, they’d created at least one clear-cut opportunity in all their games spanning four months – their last failure was in a goalless draw against Real Sociedad at Anoeta in early November

Furthermore, in the aforementioned games, Sevilla still registered a combined 13 shots inside the box (seven against Los Ches and six at Sociedad).

Nonetheless, all that didn’t matter to Omeruo and his teammates, whose backs-to-the-wall performance resulted in a memorable victory. Such a rearguard action had been teased in the previous gameweek against Celta Vigo which ended 0-0 at the Municipal de Butarque.

Against Celta, the home side conceded eight attempts all game, restricted their opponents to a couple of shots in their box and conceded no big chances. What made the aforementioned 3-0 win significant was the fact that it came against a top side, as opposed to the goalless draw against lower-echelon opposition.

Omeruo’s performance in Seville was special too: the centre-back made nine clearances, was successful in six of his seven duels, and completed two of three attempted tackles. Against the Sky Blues, a week earlier, he cleared the ball from harm’s way on 10 occasions, while similarly winning a sextet of duels. There was also one vital clearance off the line to prevent Fran Escriba’s side from claiming all three points.

Deservedly, both performances saw the centre-half included in Sofascore’s La Liga Team of the Week for two weeks running.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Laliga Team of the week back to back.. all God 💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾. #omeruo

A post shared by Kenneth Omeruo (@omeruo) on May 5, 2019 at 11:08pm PDT

It’s no more than the perennial Chelsea loanee deserves after a wearisome start with Lega where he failed to secure a work permit till October, before making his debut against Rayo Vallecano, a game that ended 1-0 to Pellegrino’s side.

After an idle start, the 25-year-old has been successfully integrated, consequently becoming one of Mauricio Pellegrino’s trusted lieutenants in his first season in a new league. He’s often deployed in a back three, flanked by two central defensive colleagues.

Rarely ever letting the side down, the Blues loanee’s consistency in his first ever campaign in Europe’s major leagues has been admirable. The seminal moment for Omeruo was, ironically, in the reverse fixture against Sevilla in which he dominated defensively and was probably the home side’s best player as it ended 1-1.

He hasn’t looked back since and has relatively been consistent over the course of the season.

The centre-back’s form is auspicious with the Africa Cup of Nations imminent, but it’s likely that he settles for a place on the bench…with the largely unoccupied Leon Balogun getting a starting berth.

The towering defender’s inactivity at Brighton & Hove Albion for large periods this season (he’s featured just eight times, with only five starts) has been somewhat unexpected, given he impressed when played early on in games against Manchester United and Liverpool.

In all fairness, it’s hard to break a partnership as united as Lewis Dunk's with Shane Duffy, so in that sense, Balogun’s inability to consistently get into the Seagulls’ side doesn’t rest on his shoulders.

When fit and available, the thick-as-thieves pair get Chris Hughton’s nod, and for just reason: considering the tight spot the Albion found themselves in this season – their fight for Premier League survival – the coach leaned on his tried-and-trusted centre-back pairing to take them over the line. While it was to Balogun’s detriment, it’s hard to fault his manager’s logic.

Balogun’s inactivity doesn't appear to be of a primary concern to Gernot Rohr, although it ought to be an underlying concern ahead of the continental showpiece.

When crunch time comes, who will Rohr pick in central defence to partner William Troost-Ekong?

There’s always the danger of allowing sentiment to cloud one’s better judgment when making decisions, after all, biases are an element of human nature.

The famed ‘Oyibo wall’ have been the German tactician’s go-to centre-back pairing for the majority of the time since he took the reins of the Nigeria job, so it’s likely he continues in that vein in Egypt. It’s a logic Hughton followed at Brighton, with Dunk and Duffy, so why can’t Rohr make use of his trusted guys too?

There are several reasons...

Brighton were underdogs who needed to put their bodies on the line to survive, the old-fashioned British way (which likely made Hughton overlook Balogun for several games), while the Super Eagles head into the tournament as one of the favorites, but they must not let complacency slip into their planning.

A similar scenario played out at last year’s World Cup in Russia with Germany.

Joachim Low’s insistence on playing his trusted soldiers as opposed to deserving replacements saw an out-of-shape Manuel Neuer rushed back to action for the global showpiece, when Marc-Andre ter Stegen was capable of filling his compatriot’s shoes.

Predictably, favoritism cost Low’s side as they suffered the ignominy of group-stage elimination.

It’s a trap Rohr must avoid falling into when selecting his central defensive pairing as the Super Eagles make their first appearance at the tournament since winning it 2013.

Succinctly put, on merit, Omeruo ought to get the nod over Balogun in the heart of the backline.