The midfielder has endured a frustrating international career, failing to build on the promise he showed as a youngster—when he was once considered alongside John Obi Mikel—with a series of injuries and fitness problems undermining his progress.
He failed to establish himself at Internazionale as the club appeared to gradually lose faith in his consistency, and missed out on both the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and 2014 World Cup.
Now, however, enjoying a renaissance of sorts at Torino, and with the 2018 tournament in Russia fast approaching, Gernot Rohr offered Obi an invaluable opportunity to showcase his qualities in the green of Nigeria.
In truth, the jury’s out.
Assuming Obi stays fit between now and the tournament—a big ‘if’ considering his record—it remains to be seen whether he’ll take his place within Rohr’s 23.
First of all, beyond fitness issues, there is considerable competition for a spot in the midfield, and player with a dubious injury record may resemble an un-necessary risk unless he offers something that no one else can.
Ogenyi Onazi, John Obi Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi are essentially settled as Rohr’s first-choice three, with John Ogu and Oghenekaro Etebo likely to fill up two more spots.
Mikel Agu has enjoyed the faith of Rohr in the past, while Henry Uche Agbo and Chidiebere Nwakali are other options, but Obi ostensibly appears to be battling with this trio for any potential sixth midfield spot.
To climb in the pecking order, he surely needs a injury to one of the aforementioned players, or needed to have made an indisputable case for himself during the international break.
He didn't succeed.
In the first match, against Poland, his ability to express himself was largely denied him by Rohr’s conservative tactics, which saw Obi handed a more defensive brief as Onazi began the game on the bench.
This was a consequence of Rohr’s decision to switch to a central-midfield two in order to give Kelechi Iheanacho the opportunity to impress just off Odion Ighalo.
Obi may have done his duties effectively, demonstrating his energy and discipline, but this was hardly the opportunity to showcase his offensive qualities.
In the second game, with the midfield three restored and Mikel still absent, the stage appeared to be set for Obi to come into his own.
In the event, however, the Turin-based midfielder was again utilised in a deeper role—this time alongside captain-for-the-day Onazi—with Ndidi perplexingly used as the most advanced of the triangle.
It was another missed opportunity by Rohr, with Obi not allowed to prove whether he could effectively be Mikel’s understudy after ahead being handed a more restrictive brief.
If the Tianjin TEDA man cannot make it to Russia—for whatever reason—then could Obi replace him effectively?
We still don’t know…and neither does Rohr.
Certainly, at this stage, the left-footer cannot realistically hope to have convinced the manager that he offers more thrust than Etebo or is a better passer than Ogu.
In principle, his dynamism, dribbling and technical class could have made him the ideal candidate to link the midfield and the attack—the great failing the Eagles demonstrated in London—but the opportunity was missed acquire more evidence.
What does count in Obi’s favour, however, is his versatility.
While he’s established himself as a central midfield, his ability to play through the middle in a more advanced or withdrawn role, or in various positions out wide, could make him a valuable asset in a tournament environment.
Taking a player with Obi’s dexterity to Russia would ensure that the Eagles are covered for any series of potential injuries or suspensions, with the midfielder representing something of a security blanket in the case of a crisis of personnel.
He’s not exactly the Nigerian James Milner, but it’s an attribute that will certainly count in his favour when Rohr comes to draw up his squad.
In conclusion, Obi’s case hasn’t been advanced as much as it might have been during this international break.
He kept fit and he proved that he can do a job in a deeper midfield role—both representing successes—but he didn’t make himself invaluable and hasn’t demonstrated that he can take the creative reins should Mikel miss out.
If he can stay fit, we’re tipping him to sneak into the squad on the basis of his versatility and his poise, but heartbreak only ever feels a whisker away.
Will this be another false dawn for everyone’s favourite midfielder Nigeria almost had?