By Jacob Ajom
The list of players released last week by interim coach of the Super Eagles, Austin Eguavoen for selection ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup playoffs against the Black Stars of Ghana has left most football pundits pondering on the chances Nigeria has against the West African football powerhouse when they clash in less than three weeks.
Ogenyi Onazi, 29, despite his age, is already a veteran in the eyes of many. He was part of the 2013 AFCON-winning squad in South Africa and was in the squad that went to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Since then, the once promising midfielder has traversed several European countries in the hope of re-establishing his career, which has been blighted by injuries.
Presently, he plays for Saudi Arabian second division side Al-Adalah. The midfielder has made 11 league appearances for Al-Adalar with only four starts in those games. He is returning to the Super Eagles’ for the first time since September 2018. His last appearance in Nigeria’s colours came in a 3-0 victory over Seychelles during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Onazi’s inclusion in Eguavoen’s provisional list was condemned by former Super Eagles attacking midfield maestro, Etim Esin. In a chat with Sports Vanguard, Esin dismissed Onazi’s invitation with a wave of the hand. “Onazi has no place in that team,” he said. “I don’t think he is required in the present set up. We don’t really need Onazi as far as I am concerned.
“Osimhen is back. We need a strong forward line that can deliver goals for us. We need a poacher; that is what we lack. If we get that right, then the game is over and the World Cup ticket is ours.”
Former Super Eagles assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala said, only Eguavoen knows what he wants from Onazi. “It depends on what Eguavoen wants. I am not there. He knows what he wants from Onazi.
What remains intriguing to many, including Okpala, is the statement credited to coach Eguavoen that he invited Onazi to please everybody. Speaking to reporters in Lagos on Sunday explained, “Onazi, good player. Whether he’s still good and can play at that top level, we don’t know.
“But that’s why I said to pacify everybody, to ensure there’s harmony here, put him on the standby. “While he’s on the standby, I have the final say,” Eguavoen said.
Confused, Okpala asked, “Is he not the coach? He should know what he wants and what he doesn’t want. I don’t know what he meant by ‘to pacify everybody’. Coaching is not where you have to please people anyhow. I don’t know what he meant by that, if he actually said so”.
On the whole, I think he made a good selection but I don’t know why he included some new players in the team. He knows better, he is the coach, Everything lies on his head. If you want to please some people and the result is not favourable, people will not remember those people who forced players on you because you were supposed to be in charge.
“If you ask me, I would like to see Awoniyi in the main squad, not on the stand-by list. Ejuke too should be in the main squad. From what I watched them play in the Nations Cup. I am not saying he should start them but they deserve spots in the main squad. I am judging them from what I saw them play. They have an edge over someone who has not featured for the national team before. Someone can be a very good player but not having played with the team before is a disadvantage. This is because club form is different from the national team.”
On his part, Etim warned Eguavoen against toying with Nigeria’s chances against Ghana. He recalled the age-long rivalry between the two countries. More poignantly, he remarked, “Ghana, like Nigeria, lost out of the last Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. The pain is on both sides. They, like us, want to go to the World Cup, so it is going to be dicey.”
Beyond the rivalry, Etim believes the significance of the results from the two legged tie will be a big test for not just Eguavoen but for Nigerian coaches in general. He said, “Eguavoen must recognise the fact that this is a big test for him and Nigerian coaches generally. A coach is as good as the result of his last match. If he fails, they will now have the ample excuse to go and bring another white coach. He should know that the Ghana test is a double edged sword.”
On worries about the Super Eagles defence where most of Eguavoen’s men are either nursing injuries or not having enough playing time with their clubs. As ominous as the situation appears, Etim said Nigerians should not lose sleep over that.
“Eguavoen himself was a great defender. If there is any problem in the defence, he is the best man to provide solution to that. I don’t think Nigerians should be bothered about that. Because Austin can handle that.”
He however expressed his fears in the goalkeeping department. “My worry is the keeping department because as we speak, I don’t know who will keep for us,” he said.
Continuing, Etim observed, “He is bringing in new players like Lookman. “Well I believe the coaches know what they are doing.”
My only problem is that Eguavoen, who started from home, like most of us in our time, is ignoring the local league. It pains me, but he knows best how to go about getting results because the target is getting us a ticket to Qatar.”