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Ukraine vs Nigeria preview: Rohr begins post AFCON phase with focus on Iheanacho

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After finishing third at the Africa Cup of Nations, Gernot Rohr’s men head into a new phase of their evolution on the back of the retirement of the calming presence of John Mikel Obi and the goalscoring prowess of Odion Ighalo.

Nigeria plays Ukraine in a friendly at Dnipro Arena with a raft of new faces and some returning after missing out on the last AFCON.

Joe Aribo, Josh Maja, Dennis Bonaventure and Maduka Okoye were handed their first time invites to the Super Eagles with Rohr seeking to plug holes left by the retiring players while improving the side.

Kelechi Iheanacho, Semi Ajayi and Bryan Idowu return to the side with points to prove but it could be the Leicester forward who has the most burden of performance.

Under Rohr, Iheanacho has gone from boasting a decent goal ratio with the Super Eagles to getting bawled out by the coach before the press over his work ethic and the need to improve on the field. Things got really stark when the final list of 23 players was released and the German coach placed more faith in Paul Onuachu and Victor Osimhen.

Iheanacho didn’t make the cut and there was no furore from the press or the fans over his omission. It was symptomatic of his severe regression from being the future of the Super Eagles to a sticking point on discipline and focus.

Onuachu’s larrup against Egypt and the potential option his gangling height offered locked him in for the AFCON while Rohr was willing to bet on another prodigy for the last central slot.

What placed Iheanacho even further out of focus was the brilliance of Ighalo. The former Watford striker was on a veritable purple patch, leading the scorers’ chart both in the AFCON qualifiers and the AFCON itself. There was no avenue for fans to relapse into wild dreams involving the former Manchester City starlet or what-ifs. There was just no need for Iheanacho.

Iheanacho’s profile as a striker wasn’t also the most natural fit for Rohr’s style. Too timid to truly lead the line, sparsely efficient outside the area and perhaps the staggering need for a striking pair.

Maybe he is reborn, perhaps he’s more willing to put in the grind, especially with Ighalo hanging his golden boots. His return, however, feels muted, unheralded.

Akin to the situation at his club side Leicester City, there’s a striker who is in better form and a better fit for the team.

After his move to Lille, Victor Osimhen has made the biggest claim to filling Ighalo’s boots.  In a handful of games in the Ligue 1, the striker seems to have made the case for a bump from third-choice striker to the first-choice striker.

Maybe Osimhen even helps in the evolution of the Super Eagles’ attacking play into a far less stilted and more fluid style taking up different attacking positions, stretching play with his movement and ultimately finding the back of the net. A feat Iheanacho could not achieve all at once.

Iheanacho has been handed an opportunity to do it over, battle for a spot against Osimhen and Onuachu, it remains to be seen if he has what it takes.

 


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