COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It really is quite subtle – blink and you miss it – but with every Super Eagles squad Gernot Rohr names, his imprint on the team becomes clearer as the break from the past continues apace. Whisper it quietly but, without turning it into a meaningless catchphrase, the German is building a team, and that without taking a wrecking ball to the side left by Sunday Oliseh.
What is rather more visible though is that he has a clear timeline in his mind for execution. There was considerable uproar in the lead-up to the Senegal friendly in March, when it appeared that his impatience with the Nigeria Professional Football League was pathological. When then, observers queried, would the local league get a shot?
Well, the answer is now.
The circumstance is also far kinder: the Teranga Lions are one of the stronger teams on the continent, and boast leading lights starring all across Europe.
To send the form players of the NPFL against them would have been hurling eggs at a rock face, and would have served no meaningful purpose. A Corsican selection is a gentler slope; the tiny island is a favourite of African nations preparing for major tournaments, or some way along in a process of evolution.
Lest we forget, aside the ubiquitous Ikechukwu Ezenwa (more on him in a minute), the trio of Alhassan Ibrahim, Stephen Odey and Sikiru Olatunbosun are rather young and wet behind the ears. This is, for them, not just a chance, but a fair one.
Suddenly, all of Rohr’s previous insistence that they would get their chance makes sense.
For Ibrahim, there is a sense of justification. He features in this squad alongside Isaac Success and Kelechi Iheanacho, both of whom were his team mates at under-17 level and have gone on to bigger things in the Premier League.
He has had to take the scenic route, as it were, but the moral to the story of the player aptly nicknamed ‘Muazzam’ (this translates to ‘Magnified’ in Arabic) is that quality always stands out and rises to the top.
In truth, his stock is perhaps the highest of the three at the moment: while Iheanacho has found the promise of his first season dimmed under Pep Guardiola at the Etihad, Success has barely got going at Watford.
The Hornets’ record signing has been beset with multiple knee and thigh injuries, which may not be unconnected to a sudden, rapid increase in weight and muscle mass. However, when fit, his direct running and raw power make him a handful for any full-back.
Looked at that way, facing up to him in training will provide a real litmus test for Tyrone Ebuehi and Ola Aina, 21 and 20 respectively, who are the newest to audition for a role as Nigeria’s starting right-back.
Both have long been sought after, and after initial cold feet, it would appear Ebuehi is ready to take the step.
It will be intensely competitive, even though on the face of it there appears little confusion: Aina has made a grand total of five senior appearances for Chelsea all season, totalling about 180 minutes scattered across three competitions, while Ebuehi has featured 28 times in the Eredivisie for ADO Den Haag, a starter in all but two of those.
The counter-argument would be that London is a significantly more gruelling environment than The Hague; a just objection, though some of Aina’s colleagues are amassing a lot more game time at Vitesse Arnhem, incidentally in the same division.
In any case, it is exciting to be suddenly awash with options in a problem position, young as they may be. Conveniently, if they do not pass muster, there is the handy option of Shehu Abdullahi as an insurance policy.
The same simply cannot be said of the goalkeeper position.
There is a blend of youth and experience alright, but not of the type that imbues confidence. Dele Alampasu is an exciting young talent, but is something of an unknown (it cannot help that he plays in the second division in Portugal) beyond the 2013 under-17 World Cup, where he looked neither spectacular nor poor.
The backup plan though is Ezenwa, the long term nod to affirmative action, a pick as boring and predictable as can be.
One must assume it is precisely that familiarity and experience that is the basis of his continued selection. He is neither the best goalkeeper in the NPFL (the likes of George Michael and Theophilus Afelokhai might have something to say in that discussion), nor even first choice at his clubside FC Ifeanyi Ubah these days.
He failed to convince at the 2016 Africa Nations Championship, and is shaky on the best of days. His inclusion puts into context the paucity of options in the position.
It is perhaps with an eye to this that Rohr has opted to keep the defensive duo of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong together. Under his watch, the Super Eagles are as yet undefeated, but have managed to leak chances at an alarming rate every time, so it is crucial that an understanding is forged quickly.
If so, it is smart thinking from Rohr – with the second half of the year come bigger tests, and mistakes will certainly be punished.
The time to work them out of the system is now.