Don't write off Samuel Chukwueze as Nigeria's Africa Cup of Nations hero

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The flying winger has been excluded from the Super Eagles' latest squad, but it would be a mistake to not have him on the plane to Egypt

There was very little to elicit any kind of impassioned reaction when the latest Super Eagles squad list was announced.

The upcoming matches against Seychelles and Egypt have very little riding on them, with qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations already secured. Given that, the games have come to be viewed as something of a celebratory occasion, a kind of early send-off for the national team ahead of the summer’s engagement at the Afcon.

However, the fact that not even the continued absence of team captain John Obi Mikel has roused any sort of sentiment is odd. Instead, the only real talking point in football circles has been the exclusion of exciting winger Samuel Chukwueze.

Bright performances in his first season of senior club football with Villarreal earned him a maiden international call-up back in November, and he broke his wings in by playing a half in the friendly against Uganda in Asaba.

Samuel Chukwueze - Villarreal

Indeed, so inventive and eye-catching was his cameo that slightly hyperbolic inferences began to be drawn concerning the fact he had worn the number 10 shirt on the day.

Was he the anointed one, the new standard bearer for the national side?

Would he be handed the keys to the kingdom?

As such, it was quite jarring to see him excluded altogether this time around. Considering the spaced out nature of international windows, there is no constant news cycle or feedback loop to rely upon for information.

As a result, squad lists have come to be viewed as a means of communication in themselves, summarizing both the prior thought process and the intent of the coach.Samuel Chukwueze - Nigeria vs. Uganda

Going off this, as well as his personality, it is easy to see that Gernot Rohr considers his squad for the Afcon pretty much decided.

Aside the maiden call-up for FC Midtjylland’s beanpole Paul Onuachu, there is entirely no mystery to resolve: barring any surprises, the team that goes to Egypt in pursuit of a fourth African crown will be a very familiar one.

Does that make Chukwueze’s exclusion terminal then?

Perhaps. After all, the teenager hadn't started a league game for the Yellow Submarine since mid-January before featuring against Rayo Vallecano this weekend, sacrificed in the club’s bid to ward off relegation. Samuel Chukwueze - Villarreal

It is not typically the environment within which young talent is fostered, and manager Javi Calleja has sought to tighten up the side’s leaky rear end by keeping his precocious talent in reserve.

So far, it seems to be working. Villarreal are out of the relegation zone, and can now look upward for the first time in a long time, with Chukwueze returning to the side as they get their heads above water.

Considering his scaled-back involvement, Rohr may well have felt justified in leaving him out on the grounds of form and match sharpness.

The German has shown a reticence toward altering his set-up in any sudden way, prioritizing the cohesion of the group often to the detriment of organic growth: it took him some time to lose patience with the misfiring Kelechi Iheanacho, whose last good performance for the national team was in 2017.

That torpor has finally cost the Leicester man his place, but it just goes to show that Rohr will happily give his preferred lieutenants a copious amount of rope first before swinging the axe. That indecision could also see Chukwueze miss out, in spite of his obvious talents.

Kelechi Iheanacho Nigeria 2018

It would be a mistake, however. not simply because of the 19-year-old’s talent, which is plain enough for all to see, but because, in spite of his reduced window of performance, he has once again found a way to make himself useful.

It was his curled effort from just inside the box against Levante earlier this month that finally lifted the Yellow Submarine out of relegation’s murky depths and into the light. Up until his introduction, the game had been headed for a dour, disappointing goalless outcome. That changed in an instant, and via a swing of his cultured left foot.

Even off the bench, slight short of rhythm and sharpness, Chukwueze retains his latent danger.

That same danger could prove an ace up the sleeve for Rohr and the Super Eagles at the Afcon in June. In whatever capacity, the forward provides a quantum of one-punch knockout power that no one else in the squad can. 

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