COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It may be an odd thing to say of a player who has represented both Liverpool and Sporting CP (both have 37 domestic league titles between them) but on Tuesday night, Tiago Ilori played arguably the biggest match of his young career at the Madejski Stadium in Berkshire.
Ilori may be only 24, but he seemed in danger of drifting into obscurity.
He broke into the first team at Sporting in 2013, making his senior league debut for the Lions alongside a certain Eric Dier in defence in a 3-2 victory over Gil Vicente. In total, he made 11 league appearances before Liverpool decided they had seen enough and snagged him for an undisclosed fee. Dier stayed one more season in Lisbon, and then moved to Tottenham Hotspur.
One can only speculate as to the reasons, but what is clear is that the paths of both players have diverged markedly.
Liverpool perhaps proved a step too far, and too soon, and after sundry loans, the Reds finally cut their losses, accepting a bid by Reading to take the player off their hands in a club-record deal for the Royals.
Dier has blossomed in London, scoring on his debut, becoming a mainstay at White Hart Lane, and representing England at the Euros last summer.
It is a cautionary tale, and not just about the dangers young players face moving to a huge clubs in a different league.
Dier came into Tottenham as one of the first signings of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure, a manager whose demands on defensive players suited him down to a tee. The Argentine has refined the 23-year-old, magnifying his strengths and showing him the trust that is so crucial to player development.
That same intangible but crucial ingredient has been in short supply for Ilori, first under Brendan Rodgers, and then under Jurgen Klopp.
No surprise then that, under Dutch legendary defender Jaap Stam, he may belatedly be coming of age.
In the absence of club skipper Paul McShane, Ilori came into the backline for the second leg of the Championship playoff semi-final against Fulham, and was magnificent. For context, the Cottagers finished the regular season tied with Newcastle United for the league’s best attack (85 goals scored), and led both on shots per game and average possession.
Basically, this Fulham side can play.
Despite a lack of playing time this term, Ilori turned in a thoroughly accomplished performance, with he and veteran goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi particularly defiant under heavy shelling. Particularly impressive was his ability to anticipate the movement of ball, cutting out Fulham attacks before they had a chance to develop.
He was not, however, averse to getting his hands (and shorts) dirty, as shown by his game-high five tackles. On the bench, Stam must have smiled quietly, himself a tough-tackling defender in his playing days, at the sort of assertiveness that was so frequently lacking while the 24-year-old was at Anfield.
On the basis of this display, he now has a choice to make for the final as to whether to retain Ilori in the starting line-up for the playoff final against Huddersfield Town following their penalty victory over Sheffield Wednesday on Wednesday. If they do secure promotion though, we will finally get to see how the Portuguese-Nigerian would get on at the highest level, a possibility denied us while he was with Liverpool.
This would be vital for the possibility of him playing for Nigeria at some point in the future, as Super Eagles manager Gernot Rohr will not consider players in the lower divisions. There is, however, a bit of a shortage at the back for the Super Eagles, with an injection of quality surely needed.
Ilori has, up to this point, featured exclusively for the Portugal youth sides despite also being eligible for England, and was a part of their squad to last year’s Olympic Games in Rio. However, the step up to the senior national side is the steepest, and Nigeria could very profit within the window of uncertainty.
First though, there is work to do to convince. He has taken the first step and seized the opportunity handed him, and though it has taken him a lot longer, he may finally be able to showcase what it is Liverpool saw in him four years ago.