It seems as though, at every stage of their African Nations Championship campaign, heroes are emerging for Nigeria.
Most encouragingly for the Super Eagles, as one fades, another arises to take their place, such is the strength in depth that the West Africans boast at the ongoing CHAN in Morocco.
Take, for example, Sunday Faleye.
A new addition before the tournament, the youngster stepped into the breach as those around him struggled for composure and coherency early in the campaign, and struck the decisive winner in the 1-0 victory over Libya.
Elsewhere, Dayo Ojo has emerged as a player who ensures completeness for the Super Eagles, linking midfield to attack, giving Nigeria dynamism and bite in midfield, while simultaneously creating scoring opportunities for those around him.
While Daniel Itodo was sidelined with injury, the youngster Ikouwem Utin stepped up, delivering a performance that belied his slender years and offered hope for the future of Nigeria’s left-back berth.
In attack, with Anthony Okpotu spluttering as a lone forward, Gabriel Okechukwu has begun to deliver, weighing in with contributions that emulated his decisive showing for Akwa United in the Aiteo Cup final.
It was Okechukwu who scored the extra-time winner against Angola in the quarter-final, and the number 22 who also bagged the only goal of the game as Sudan were put to the sword in the semi.
He will start the final, likely alongside Okpotu again, and don’t bet on Okechukwu being the star performer once again as Nigeria attempt to win a maiden CHAN title.
Even in the semi-final showing against Sudan, the Eagles had to summon up a new hero following the early injury to captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
The goalkeeper had, of course, been awarded the Man of the Match prize in the quarter-final against Angola—keeping Nigeria in the game with a series of fine stops—and had the character to hold his own in the high-profile semi against Sudan.
Could Sudan have coped as well without Akram or Libya without Mohamed Nashnush as Nigeria did without Ezenwa?
Indeed, his replacement—Dele Ajiboye—delivered one of the performances of the tournament as he kept the Falcons of Jediane at bay time and time again after coming off the bench.
One particular double stop late on was exceptional, and the keeper earned significant praise from Zdravko Logarusic after the contest.
“[Ajiboye] started well and, for me, he is the Man of The Match,” Logarusic told journalists, as per Complete Sports Nigeria. “He is the one who gave Nigeria the final slot.
“When they needed help at the back, he was the man who saved them.”
Ezenwa may have fallen by the wayside, with his final in doubt, but in Ajiboye, Nigeria have a new hero.
However, beyond all of these aforementioned players, there’s one character within the Eagles camp who deserves immense credit for establishing the scenario where Nigeria appear to be able to cope with whatever is thrown at them.
That man, of course, is coach Salisu Yusuf.
He received specific praise from Ezenwa after the victory over Angola, with the goalkeeper praising the calmness with which Yusuf approaches adversity.
The stopper described how the coach’s composed presence on the touchline convinced him that, regardless of the fact that the Lusophone heavyweights had taken the lead as Nigeria laboured to find a winner, the Eagles would come out on top.
Yusuf himself, overseeing the CHAN campaign despite an almost crippling hip problem that leaves him with a noticeable limp, has never appeared ruffled—either after the 0-0 stalemate with Rwanda as his strikers failed to ignite—or as Nigeria trailed against Angola.
There is a humility, a patience and an aura about Yusuf, and while he couldn’t resist a toothy grin after the Eagles downed Sudan, you can bet he won’t be getting carried away against Morocco.
While Okpotu may have drawn a blank against the Falcons, Yusuf has kept faith in his misfiring frontman—who has two goals in five games so far this tournament—insisting that he has faith that the Lobi Stars man will come good.
He rewarded his manager’s faith against Equatorial Guinea and, unforgettably, with the late equaliser against Sudan as, one again, Yusuf’s calm confidence that things will come good ultimately bore fruit.
This is a manager who has faith in his methods and in a logical approach to the game; if you do the right things consistently enough, success will follow.
“For the game against Morocco, every team is beatable,” he told journalists after the Sudan triumph. “If we do the right things, why not?
“We can beat Morocco.”
At this stage, even with heroes falling by the wayside, you wouldn’t bet against them.