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Maduka Okoye & Joe Aribo: Introducing the Super Eagles' new boys

16:51 IST 22/08/2019
Joe Aribo - Charlton Athletic
The youngsters are set to make their Super Eagles debuts in next month's friendly against Ukraine, and could be central to the team's improvement

Off the back of Nigeria’s campaign at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, there were two immediately obvious areas of concern.

The first was in the goalkeeper department. In truth, it is an area that has caused Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr no end of consternation during his time in charge. Carl Ikeme, Daniel Akpeyi, Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Francis Uzoho have all, at one time or the other, laid claim to the no.1 spot and, aside the now-retired former Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper, all have failed to convince.

In Egypt, it was Akpeyi who was given the nod, and while there were no calamitous gaffes (at least none that led to concessions), his lack of assertiveness in his own area and a general air of untidiness to the manner in which he fielded efforts on goal had many a sphincter tightly clenched.

The other area of concern was midfield. While a pairing of Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi offered a great deal of huff and bustle, it failed in two critical aspects: it neither offered sufficient protection for the back four (both players have the ball as a primary reference point) nor a reliable conduit into Alex Iwobi and the rest of the front four.

In particular, the come-from-behind victory against Cameroon in the Round of 16 exemplified the former concern, while the semi-final defeat at the hands of Algeria laid bare the latter.

The latest list of call-ups for the Super Eagles ahead of the September 10 friendly against Ukraine suggests Rohr is giving serious thought to addressing these two concerns, specifically in the form of new invitees Maduka Okoye and Joe Aribo.

Aribo, in particular, is one who is particularly exciting. The Rangers midfielder, who moved to Glasgow this summer from Charlton Athletic, was a crucial part of the Addicks’ promotion to the Championship at the end of last season, and has earned rave reviews from Bhoys’ manager Steven Gerrard already.

“He can go as far as he wants,” the Liverpool legend told BT Sport earlier in the week, and it is easy to see why; Aribo combines athleticism, nifty footwork and a good range of passing in one handy package.

The 23-year-old scored nine goals and laid on five more in League One last term, and has already shone in Europa League qualifying so far for Rangers, with three goals in five games.

Most comfortable as a central midfielder, he is however capable of playing in a more advanced role, or even wide on occasion. His ability to carry the ball from deep will offer the missing link between the back of midfield and the forwards, and so it is more likely he will slot in alongside one of Ndidi or Etebo (the former, more likely).

It is not a completely foolproof solution, of course: it does not solve both problems with the midfield composition, and it does remain to be seen whether Aribo has the tacticial aptitude to build play. That said, it would aid a more fluid attacking transition.

Where Okoye is concerned though, the jury is very much out.

The 19-year-old is yet to make his senior club debut for Fortuna Dusseldorf, instead turning out for the B team in the German fourth tier. Last season, he started 15 games in Regionalliga West, aiding his side’s battle to stave off relegation, and had long been adamant Nigeria is his first-choice where international football was concerned; cynics have been wont to impugn his suitability with this, however.

The obvious question is whether he has done enough so far to deserve a call-up. However, to look at it in those terms would be to disregard the gravity of the situation.

Rohr clearly does not trust what the Nigeria Professional Football League has to offer, and so is willing to roll the dice on a somewhat inexperienced goalkeeper who nevertheless has a proper foundation in terms of the fundamentals.

It remains to be seen whether he can provide a solution, and his recent return from surgery means he faces a race to be fully fit for the Ukraine friendly. However, if he is able to stake his claim and take to international football, the Super Eagles would be one step closer to their final form under Rohr.