Since pretty much all of Nigeria’s midfield is in the English premier league, coach Gernot Rohr has to think outside the box to close the gaps
The announcement on Tuesday of the decision by Premier League clubs to refuse sacking players for the international window in September to countries on the UK red list has shocked the world of football.
While a statement by Fifa President Gianni Infantino on Wednesday called for “showing solidarity from every member association, league and club to do what is right and fair for the global game,” and the British were hinted at Prime Minister for one Relaxation of travel regulations, it is unclear whether this reaction by the fire brigade will bear fruit.
As things stand now, all affected countries must begin to take alternative precautions.
Nowhere will the effect be more noticeable than in Africa, which has more representatives in the Premier League on all continents outside of Europe; and as much as South America and Asia combined, which (together with Africa) have the greatest concentration of Red List countries.
Nigeria, which makes up the largest proportion of the continent’s contingent, is not itself on the red list.
So while it could theoretically be possible to get players for the World Cup qualifier on 3rd), the trip to Cape Verde four days later will undoubtedly result in the Super Eagles being stripped of some of their more established and recognizable stars.
To make matters worse, however, most of these absentee players play in the same zone on the field.
Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Alex Iwobi have been Nigeria’s starting midfield trio for more than four years, and Frank Onyeka, who made his international debut in 2019, would have brought decisive depth.
It is currently unclear whether the Scottish Premier League will follow the same line; if so, Joe Aribo could also be absent. Since all start and depth options are missing in midfield, lateral thinking is required for Super Eagles trainer Gernot Rohr.
Nowhere is this dire situation repeated.
Vice-Captain William Troost-Ekong is a huge mistake, but his absence would hardly be fatal as Chidozie Awaziem waits in the wings; Kelechi Iheanacho has only just regained importance with the national team; and Emmanuel Dennis probably wouldn’t have made the team anyway, as he was still in the process of reviving a career that seemed to be heading for the heap of “wasted potential.”
In the midfield, however, possible substitutes are less obvious.
Apart from Abdullahi Shehu, who can finally play in his natural position, the selection is limited.
Even a look at some of the other midfielders Rohr capped during his tenure doesn’t offer much.
Ramon Azeez has yet to play in any capacity for Granada this season after loaning out the second half of the 2020/21 season to Cartagena. Ogenyi Onazi has not played for Nigeria on an international level since 2018 and most recently played in Lithuania for Zalgiris. (He moved to the Turkish Super Lig club Denizlispor a few days ago).
Although Joel Obi regularly plays for the Serie A newbies Salernitana, he has also been persona non grata since 2018.
It may then be necessary to cast the net wider.
This could include some more fringe options, especially former youth internationals who haven’t made the jump to the Super Eagles yet.
People like Kelechi Nwakali naturally come to mind. The former U17 star remains a gifted footballer and seems to be working on his kinks in the Segunda division with Huesca.
He has started both league games for Marcos Espinoza’s side this season and could be the biggest beneficiary of this recent uncertainty. Bologna’s Kingsley Michael, a Nwakali team-mate at youth level, is another to consider.
Malmo’s Innocent Bonke was instrumental in advancing his team to the Uefa Champions League group stage and former Manchester United junior Tosin Kehinde was in good shape with Danish club Randers.
Both offer something fresh and unseen as they have not represented Nigeria at any level before.
While these are interesting options, the simple fact of timing and stakes gives cause for concern.
While Rohr is expected to be on par with Liberia, Cape Verde and the Central African Republic, having so many inexperienced players making their debuts is far from ideal.
It is the flip side of the optimal way to bleed and integrate young talent, and worse, it can immediately fall behind Nigeria.
Praia is a difficult away trip at the best of times for most teams in Africa.
These guys who are expected to sink or swim could be washed out under embarrassing circumstances.
Rohr opted for the friendly against Cameroon in the last international match and did not refresh his options, but has few excuses.
The circumstances may have been difficult to predict, but in the end the German will have to face the consequences of his decisions if Nigeria is to get off to a strong start in qualifying for the World Cup.