By James O'Conners
While the Super Eagles have lost out on one exciting striker, they have recently unearthed another in LOSC Lille youngster Victor Osimhen, who has enjoyed an excellent start to life in Ligue 1 after moving to France in the summer.
Osimhen’s emergence should help reassure Nigeria fans that, even though they’ve lost Abraham, they still have a magnificent new option to lead the line for a decade to come.
The recent Champions League showdown between Lille and Chelsea represented an ideal opportunity for Super Eagles fans to assess the one who got away and the player who represents Nigeria’s best goal threat post-Odion Ighalo.
Coming into this match, both players had enjoyed excellent starts to the season. Abraham has netted eight times in eight Premier League matches
Osimhen has taken to life in Ligue 1 like a duck to water, netting seven times and assisting two more goals in his nine appearances since his move from RSC Charleroi.
At the start of this game, both men struggled to have an impact. Abraham was significantly more involved in the play though, often running the right channel to be an out-ball as Chelsea struggled to penetrate Lille’s excellent narrow midfield defending.
For the Camberwell-born forward, it was a largely frustrating open 21 minutes categorised by some heavy first touches, or taking too long to move the ball and being dispossessed. After that, he opened the scoring with some excellent play inside the box – a goal in the 22nd minute on his 22nd birthday.
As Fikayo Tomori motioned to play a big diagonal switch out to the right flank, the Anglo-Nigeria centre-back instead swept a pass into the box. Lille’s defence were caught out and Abraham took a superb first touch before sweeping home ruthlessly with his second.
On the other side, Osimhen was struggling to get involved. Against a Chelsea back three, he was largely unable to press with a spare man for the away side to build, so he would often drop off and blocking forward passing lanes.
His first involvement came in the eighth minute on a Lille counterattack as he found a teammate on the flank after a good turn between the lines. That was his only real involvement in the opening 30 minutes, other than losing several aerial duels to Kurt Zouma.
However, the latter was forced into one panicked backpass when closed down by the Lagos-born attacker, and Kepa Arrizabalaga had to rush out to beat Osimhen to the ball.
After half an hour, the forward sprang into life – and sprang to head his side level. Having initially spun inside the box to fire off a left-foot shot to earn a corner, Osimhen levelled from the resultant set-play as he got between Zouma and Tomori’s zonal marking to head home.
There was a strong burst up the left channel and then low cross soon after, as well as one superb piece of control to take down a high ball and attempt a dribble in a dangerous area.
In all, Osimhen only had 12 touches of the ball in the first half though and had made only three successful passes. In general, Chelsea’s pacey defenders had handled him well and avoided many opportunities for the home side to use their renowned counters.
Abraham, meanwhile, was not getting much joy.
There was one good piece of play to win a foul, and some excellent chest control from a longer pass from Cesar Azpilicueta, but otherwise, he had been a target for Reece James’ deliveries from the right and hadn’t managed to get onto any of those crosses.
With four heavy first touches to lose the ball and him being dispossessed five times, it was a half only memorable because it had brought his maiden Champions League goal.
On the other hand, Tomori, who remains eligible for Nigeria, had a very good first half. He won three tackles and played three successful long passes and 46 in all. Other than one moment when Luiz Araujo cut inside him and tested Kepa, he had been excellent.
In the second half, it was another relatively slow start for Osimhen as both Zouma and Tomori beat him in aerial duels with their excellent leaping ability. However, after 55 minutes, he played a lovely layoff and soon after, he released a runner after quick interplay around Tomori.
In the opening 25 minutes of the second half, Osimhen had only touched the ball five times whilst Abraham was struggling for service with Mason Mount and Willian blocked from receiving the ball.
However, once Chelsea went to a 4-2-3-1 formation, there was now more width and Abraham’s influence grew. First, one great run into the channel and driven cross by the striker had no one arriving to finish at the near post. Then, the Chelsea man made a great run to drag a runner away from the middle and Mount had a good opening.
For Osimhen, there was a shot rifled over the bar from distance before his big chance to make it 2-2 as he caught Tomori on the ball, but Kepa made a crucial intervention to prevent the Nigeria striker from levelling.
As the game ticked down, numerous long balls were aimed long by Lille, but Osimhen lost three of his four late aerial duels with Zouma, and his one flick-on went straight through to the goalkeeper.
In defence, Tomori breathed a sigh of relief that his error did not cost a goal, but he had been otherwise excellent. In possession, he looked to bring the ball forward overload in midfield and his recovery pace was perfect for this game. A few nervous moments are to be expected as he gets thrown into the deep-end at the highest level.
As for the battle of the strikers, it was probably edged by Osimhen purely for the moments of anxiety that he caused Chelsea’s defenders, but the selection of Zouma kept him quiet in the air in open play.
Abraham had a relatively disappointing game under some tight, physical marking but both players netting their first goals in the Champions League will send their confidence through the roof.
Any talk of Abraham to Nigeria must now come to an end, but as Osimhen has demonstrated, both domestically and in the UCL, the future of the Super Eagles’ striking department is in good hands.