There was arguably no player in the whole of African football who entered the international break under more pressure than Odion Ighalo.
Amidst death threats—it later emerged—the China-based forward maintained his composure off the pitch despite his underwhelming performances for Nigeria and his much publicised horror miss against Argentina during the World Cup.
Amidst intense criticism from Super Eagles fans, Ighalo rediscovered the goalscoring touch that he showcased at Watford—before it deserted him in the Premier League—and that he’s been demonstrating recently in the Chinese Super League.
He scored a hat-trick in the first match against Libya in Uyo, and then followed that up with a double—including a cool late winner—as the North Africans were dispatched in Sfax on Tuesday.
Indeed, a point in their final two fixtures—including a home encounter with the Seychelles—will be enough to guarantee the Eagles’ spot at the Afcon, their first appearance at the tournament since they won it under Stephen Keshi in 2013.
Suddenly, everything seems well with the world.
The Eagles are super again, the team is balance and brimming with creativity and vibrancy, and in Ighalo, Nigeria have a striker who can terrorise any of Africa’s defences…!
Hyperbole aside, Ighalo certainly did demonstrate his array of qualities during two superb displays, even if he isn’t quite the world-class frontman that some are claiming him to be since his pair of excellent showings.
His power and frame make him an effective physical threat for opposition defences to contend him, while his turn of pace allows him to go in behind opposing backlines and stretch the play.
As well as creating chances for himself, these characteristics—as well as the ability to enjoy a decent interplay with his fellow forwards—help him get the best out of those around him.
Similarly, he’s capable of moments of technical excellence, imagination and agility to get himself out of a tight spot and fashion a chance from very little, while his finishing—when he’s playing with confidence—can make him a lethal predator.
Just ask defenders in the Chinese Super League, where Ighalo has scored 20 goals in 25 appearances so far this term.
Ighalo isn’t the second coming of Rashidi Yekini, but he’s Gernot Rohr’s choice to lead the line—due to a lack of options as much as anything else—and, for now, he’s good enough!
Certainly, the evidence of this international week completely vindicates the German coach for keeping faith with his much maligned frontman.
Barring injury, he’s unlikely to switch up his leading man over the next nine months.
Rohr is a loyal coach, and a dearth of viable alternatives should make this a fairly comfortable starting pick for the Afcon opener in June.
However, while Ighalo’s effective showings against Libya solve one problem for Rohr, what his performances must not do is deflect attention away from the squad’s weaknesses.
Nigeria’s international break may read two games played, two games won, six points, seven goals scored and top spot in Group E, but those bare stats don’t tell the full story of a week in which the Eagles’ qualities were celebrated and their limitations exposed.
Some of the issues aren’t worth getting too concerned about.
Francis Uzoho has his jitters, and his lapses, but he’s young—still so inexperienced—and is still learning on the job.
He’s already done enough in the job so far to earn Rohr’s faith, and with his errors being explained away by youth, he knows that allowances can be made for the kind of blunders he made against Libya.
Samuel Kalu veering between ill-advised impetuosity and anonymity, is, it must be remembered, only taking his maiden baby steps as an international player.
He certainly has the quality to thrive as a Super Eagles mainstay, but it will take time for him to integrate fully into the fold.
However, while such issues should work themselves out in the coming months, this international break has once again revealed deficiencies in the team’s approach which show little signs of being resolved any time soon.
Indeed, while 65-year-old Rohr has managed to oversee a significant improvement with this squad, and has the talent to get past the majority of the challenges African teams throw at the Eagles, there’s still enough reason to doubt that he can carry the team too far further.
Jamilu Collins finally appears to have dissuaded him from persisting with Brian Idowu, who never lived up to the promise he demonstrated on his debut, at left-back, but Rohr’s persistence of using Oghenekaro Etebo in a deep-lying playmaker role suggests that he doesn’t truly understand how to use this dynamo.
The decisions to axe Kelechi Nwakali and give Henry Onyekuru such meagre playing time, remain unjustified, and Rohr still appears painfully slow to react to in-game situations as contests get away from his side.
Take, for example, the decision to bring on John Ogu only after Libya had scored twice to cancel out Nigeria’s two-goal advantage in Sfax.
Had Ighalo not bailed the Eagles out at the death, Rohr’s touchline dithering—and the makeup of his midfield from the off—would have come under much more intense scrutiny.
The striker’s renaissance has deflected attention away from the coach’s various failures, but supporters must not get carried away with this flawed Nigeria setup.