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Ramon Azeez's Barcelona heroics mark stunning return to relevance

9:13 pm AEST 26/9/19
Ramon Azeez
The 26-year-old was the star of the show as Granada stunned the reigning league champions, but it took a lot to get him to this point

When Ramon Azeez touched the ball home in the opening minute against Barcelona last weekend, it made many sit up and take notice.

Scoring against the reigning champions will do that for just about anyone, of course, so that’s not really saying anything. No, it was the identity of the player that was remarkable; not many Nigerian football fans had thought a great deal about the former national under-17 captain in half a decade.

There was a time when it seemed his star was on the rise, and that he was set for a prolonged period of relevance. He led the under-17 team, featuring future internationals Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo, to a second-place finish at the World Cup on home soil in 2009, before securing a move to Spanish side Almeria in 2011.

After spending time with the B team, as well as the senior team in Segunda (he would, make his debut against Barcelona B), he was a part of their eventual promotion to La Liga in 2013, and played 30 league games that season to help Almeria stave off relegation on the final day.

Particularly memorable was his 94th-minute winner against Real Betis three games to the end of the season, and a week later he won a late penalty in a 2-0 win over Granada.

Those performances would not go unnoticed. He was called up by erstwhile national team manager Stephen Keshi ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and would eventually make the final squad.

Azeez described that summer as a “lovely experience”, but in truth, he was barely involved.

To much surprise, he started the opening game of the tournament against Iran, but in an oddly advanced role, tucked in behind striker Emmanuel Emenike.

Broadly speaking, it was quite similar to the role he fulfilled against Barcelona at the weekend, but whereas against the Blaugrana his energy was useful in pressing and shutting down an expansive side with a hankering for possession, it was a lot less suited to playing an Iran side intent on sitting deep and wilfully ceding possession.

He laboured gamely for just over an hour before giving way, and Nigeria limped to a goalless draw to kick off their group campaign. He would not feature again in Brazil, even as the Super Eagles progressed from the group and eventually suffered elimination at the hands of France.

He would only play one more game at international level: a 3-2 home defeat against Congo-Brazzaville, the beginnings of an unthinkable debacle as Nigeria went on to miss out on qualifying for consecutive Africa Cups of Nations. His associations with the Super Eagles have not been happy ones.

As Nigeria's stock took a beating, so did his. The season following the World Cup, Almeria would prove incapable of another great escape, and Azeez saw his game time significantly reduced as the club managed only eight wins all season long en route to Segunda.

At the end of the season, unwilling to return to a lower division, he played his hand: demanding a transfer and rejecting the offer of a new contract. Almeria promptly demoted him to the reserve team. It was hard enough for him to be noticed playing in Segunda; for an international, the reserve team was more or less limbo.

Five months later, he would return to the first team and see out his contract until 2017, before departing for modest Lugo, most famous for a viral beer-themed kit that broke the internet back in 2015. Influencing his decision was the fact that Francisco Rodriguez, manager of Lugo, had coached him at Almeria B, playing a huge role in his development when he first moved to Spain as a youngster.

In January 2019, after a couple of notable performances against Deportivo La Coruna and Malaga (albeit in defeat), Azeez secured a move to promotion-chasing Granada after a tense, arduous negotiation that dragged on to the very final moments of the winter transfer window.

It proved a turning point for him, as Granada put together an impressive run in the second half of the season, only losing once with Azeez on the pitch, to secure automatic promotion.

Now 26, La Liga is getting a more mature, more settled player.

He has learnt to speak Spanish quite fluently, a “very important” (his words) milestone, and he is now a more rounded player, capable of playing right across the midfield. Also, he has had to embrace more of a bit-part role, but has made an impact whenever he’s been involved. His knack for poaching at the back post has already fetched him two goals this term: he also scored against Espanyol with a sliding volley on matchday three.

Back in the top flight, Azeez has wasted no time re-establishing his credentials, and if performances like against Barcelona are the norm, it will not be long until he is back in the fold with the national team.