Impressive Oghenekaro Etebo unlikely to gatecrash Super Eagles midfield

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The Nigerian midfielder was superb for Las Palmas against Barcelona last week, but remains an unlikely starter for the Super Eagles

COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter
 

Oghenekaro Etebo is unique in a way that is more easily definable than his boundless energy and ball-carrying ability. He knows how to turn up for the star games, and seems to feed off the energy of many eyes.

We saw this propensity at the Caf Under-23 Nations Cup in 2015: he revved up in the semi-final and final, barging through defences from just behind the main striker to finish as tournament top scorer. Again, at the Olympics in Rio the following year, with the attention of the world on Nigeria's financial and travel fiasco, he produced a performance of the ages in the opening game against Japan.

It would seem logical to build a side around the embodiment of that big-game mentality, and indeed Etebo was very much an integral part of those teams. However, while that tendency has not waned, his station with the senior national side could not be more different.

On Thursday, he served notice of his ability as relegation-threatened Las Palmas took a point off league leaders Barcelona. Naturally, the Canary Islanders would have bitten off a hand offering that prior to kick-off, but they were by no means hanging on by the end. This was a thoroughly deserved result.

Etebo - Las Palmas

At the heart of it, both literally and figuratively, was Etebo. He may only be there on loan, but whether or not Paco Jemez's side do stay up come season's end, it is hard to see how the former Warri Wolves man will return to modest parent club Feirense.

Naturally, the response to his performance has been enthusiastic. However, there is a cruel irony at work here, in that however well he performs, he is at best only cementing his place as a squad member with the Super Eagles party to the World Cup.

It is a role he has fulfilled quite faithfully under Gernot Rohr – he has started only thrice since the German took over at the helm: in both legs against Algeria in World Cup qualifying, and in the ill-fated Nations Cup qualifier against South Africa.

It is that last game that is most resonant, even though all three do offer a glimpse into quite why he does not fit within the starting eleven.

Nigeria, Oghenekaro Etebo & Bafana Bafana, Bongani Zungu

The first, a 3-1 home dismissal of Algeria, will come to be remembered as perhaps the moment when belief truly awakened in this young side. However, for large periods the game was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests.

Etebo started alongside Ogenyi Onazi at the base of midfield, and while the former was excellent, as a duo they struggled to provide adequate security for the pairing of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong.

Rohr saw this too, and when Wilfred Ndidi's move to Leicester established his readiness to play a key role, it was instructively Etebo who was dropped to the bench.

In the second, that limp loss against Bafana, he was fielded in place of injured captain John Obi Mikel, and was utterly incapable of carrying the team's creative burden.

Oghenekaro Etebo

One game aside, the Super Eagles have played exclusively with a defensive double-pivot and Mikel further forward in the hole.

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It is a system that does not really suit Etebo, who is a hybrid sort of midfielder: his passing is not incisive enough for a number 10, and he is not disciplined enough to play as a number 6 for a side that defends in a deep block.

In theory, he could fulfil either of these roles, but it would take something away from the way the team currently plays. With the more defensive Vicente Gomez alongside, he has greater license to get forward at Las Palmas, and was often somewhat slow to get back into position. For all that his heat map was impressive, he won one tackle all game.

That is not to downplay his performance, of course; it is simply a marker of the different role he is required to interpret. The inescapable feeling though is that, while he will almost certainly make it to Russia, barring a radical change either of shape or strategy, Etebo is unlikely to usurp any component of the incumbent Super Eagles midfield.

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