Ukraine vs Nigeria: Osimhen, Okoye could provide important answers for Gernot Rohr

The game against Ukraine is a great opportunity for the German coach to capitalize on the momentum of the Afcon and plug some glaring holes

Tuesday’s friendly against Ukraine comes at an important time for Gernot Rohr’s squad-building efforts with the Nigeria national team.

The third-place finish achieved at the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer saw the Super Eagles surge in the latest Fifa rankings. It is imperative to maintain that positive momentum; despite not being a part of the First Round of Caf World Cup qualifying, there really was no question of not taking advantage of the international window.

However, even beyond that, the friendly offers Rohr an opportunity to look forward and get the next phase of his team’s development underway. His initial list of invitees seemed to miss this point, with only two new names added to the squad that took part at the Afcon.

However, a number of injuries and logistical concerns have forced his hand, and there will be a chance for the likes of Bordeaux‘s Josh Maja and Club Brugge‘s Emmanuel Dennis to strut their stuff against a major side, throwing up new possibilities.

However, the real headline-maker in the squad is 19-year-old Maduka Okoye, who seems to have been anointed to take over as first-choice goalkeeper for the national team. It is a problem position, one in which Rohr has been unable to find any kind of stability or reassurance in the course of his tenure.


Can Okoye be the one who allays that kernel of apprehension, that knot that now forms in the belly of the Super Eagles fan whenever the opponent has the ball in the general vicinity of the penalty area?

That is a difficult question to answer, in more ways than one.

First, there is the pressure on the teenager’s admittedly broad shoulders. Usually, there is a line of succession, and a youngster can understudy the incumbent, earn the confidence and trust of his teammates and the coaching crew, and then have the gloves come to him almost as a matter of course.

In Okoye’s case, there is no such luxury.

There is also the concern that no one knows quite what to expect. Playing out of the German fourth tier makes his club performances impossible to evaluate, and therefore it is almost a blind date of sorts, with both parties awkward and uncertain as to how to please. It could just as easily be love at first sight, or an absolutely rotten evening in Dnipro, with sighs and pointed glances at the clock. 

There is also the fact that Francis Uzoho, who is ostensibly his rival for the position, is now playing more regularly with Omonoia Nicosia. This was not the case leading up to the Afcon, and led Rohr to select Daniel Akepyi as first-choice, but Uzoho has roared back into contention admirably.

Daniel Akpeyi - Nigeria

That is not to say it is all uphill for Okoye, of course.

In fact, considering the soft landing the Super Eagles got in the draw for Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, now is as good a time as any to be debuting a new, quite inexperienced goalkeeper: his mistakes, when they happen, are unlikely to be terminal.

That relieves some of the pressure, but only on Okoye.

For Rohr, the stakes are as high as they have ever been.

With the inclusion of the likes of Maja and Dennis, it is clear that his youth project is continuing apace.

Josh Maja - Bordeaux

The expectation now is that this exciting young talent adds up to something more free-flowing, that his own style evolves beyond catch-as-catch-can.

Joe Aribo will go some way toward helping that: his running with the ball should connect the halves of what looked a broken team at times in Egypt

It is all the more important as Victor Osimhen begins his run leading the line for the national team. The LOSC Lille man is a classic poacher, and is even less inclined or suited to both sing and dance at the same time: it will be necessary to build a framework that allows him apply the flourishes at the end of moves, as opposed to foraging.

Whether Rohr can recalibrate his team in a way that it consistently gets the ball to his most dangerous players is the question. That, and if he has finally found a strong enough lock for the back door. Against Ukraine, the answers will begin to emerge. 


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