With the dust still settling on Gernot Rohr’s recent 24-player list for this month’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Benin and Lesotho, observers are already speculating over the German tactician’s line-up for both encounters.
While there’s a level of certainty over the majority of positions in the XI, the form and fitness of some of the stars in the group mean the experienced manager will have tough decisions to make, with one of such tricky choices will be whom to go with to lead the line.
Usually, Victor Osimhen is the natural pick to play as the central striker but the frontman’s struggles in finding any sort of rhythm at Napoli means it’s probably not as straightforward a call as any presume.
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The forward came off the bench against Bologna at the weekend to score only his third Serie A strike of the campaign and first since he netted against the same opponents in early November.
This wasn’t the campaign the former Lille marksman imagined after his big-money move to the Azzurri; he’s started just seven league games and played in 11 of a possible 25 matches so far, 44 percent of the club’s fixtures.
An injury sustained in the last international break of 2020 and coronavirus have hampered the 22-year-old in 2020/21, but the young forward will hope Sunday’s strike in the 3-1 success over the side from Emilia-Romagna proves to be the turning point.
Even though some may reckon Osimhen’s rather indifferent form in Italy ought to see him miss out, Nigeria’s bluntness in his absence and the player’s impact on his return in that ill-fated 4-4 draw vs Sierra Leone may force a rethink.
Without the menacing striker in October’s international break, the Super Eagles posed little threat through Paul Onuachu against Algeria, while the fleeting moments of spark when Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho seemed to play together vs Tunisia were too few and far between.
Osimhen returned to face the Leone Stars and thrived as the West African giants ran riot in the opening half-hour, setting up two and scoring his fourth of the qualifying campaign in only three appearances.
That encounter, despite its calamitous culmination, may have given Rohr the blueprint to approach encounters with the Squirrels and Likuena.
Ahmed Musa played close to the Napoli striker on that day in what resembled a 4-4-2 in possession and 4-4-1-1 without the ball. After the uproar that ensued on social media due to the former CSKA Moscow attacker’s strange inclusion, the 67-year-old manager has explained the situation.
“It's important to clarify that Musa is not in the competitive list of 23 players for our game against Benin and Lesotho,” Rohr told BBC Sport Africa. “We've invited Musa as the captain by making him the 24th player, but he is not part of the 23 on the list that will play our two matches.
“What is important now is to focus on the games ahead and not to be distracted by anything else. We hope for all our players to be fit and travel down safely for the matches.”
Among the horde of forwards listed, none suit playing in a withdrawn role more than Iheanacho, whose best position has tended to cause extended debates within the Nigeria fanbase.
While one group claims he’s a natural goal scorer, others believe he’s best utilised as a number 10. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between.
The former Manchester City player is neither an out-and-out centre-forward nor top-class between-the-lines creator, yet he functions best with another striker to occupy defenders.
Iheanacho has been a beneficiary of playing with another central striker at Leicester recently, as opposed to being the main man up top, equally benefiting from the Foxes’ injury problems in attack to score in successive games against Burnley and Brighton & Hove Albion.
For someone who’d netted once in 17 previous games in the competition, the recent upswing in front of goal has been marked.
It should be three on the trot, too, but for a late miss against Arsenal in late February which could have set up a grandstand finish in that 3-1 defeat at the King Power Stadium.
While Musa seemed to struggle with the responsibilities of a withdrawn role against Sierra Leone, Iheanacho fits the bill to a T and that gives Rohr the perfect opportunity to continue with the approach he’s looked to implement in the last few games.
Leaving Osimhen out of the XI could be disastrous and playing the in-form Iheanacho alone as the central striker may have similar consequences.
In a partnership, however, both forwards could do real damage to the opposition and validate the German’s recent modus operandi.