IKENWA NNABUOGOR laments coach Augustine Eguavoen’s multiple headaches of having as many as five of his key players not playing regular club football ahead of the Africa’s biggest clash of rivals against Ghana in the mother of 2022 World Cup qualifiers for the sole ticket to Qatar…
This is certainly not the best of times for Eagles coach Augustine ‘Cerezo’ ahead of the two-legged 2022 Qatar World Cup play-offs for one of Africa’s five ticket for the first-ever World Cup to be hosted in the Middle East.
Stand-in captain William Troost-Ekong leads a team of four others to miss regular club action for their European clubs after Tunisia sacked the three-time African champions from the 2021 African Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon in January.
For the game of that magnitude against bitter rivals, Ghana, smiles could be scarce commodities on the face of ‘Cerezo’, who was touted to be become the third ever individual to win the AFCON title as a coach and a player and with just few weeks leading up to the big double header clash, it could end up disastrously for the Super Eagles should he falter against Ghana’s Black Stars.
Eagles eye their sixth World Cup appearance in Qatar with just two legs separating them from tournament final as Ghana are also poised to put their 2021 AFCON nightmare behind them by qualifying ahead of their arch-rivals.
Ghana entertain the Super Eagles in Cape Coast on March 25 and fly to Abuja for the reverse tie on March 29 with the ticket in the Eagles’ kitty or Black Stars’.
Troost-Ekong led his men with resolute ability and command in Cameroon, but has failed to return such favours for his struggling men at Vicarage Road as new manager Roy Hodgson appeared to have extended his post-AFCON vacation, earning just four bench selections and disappointingly watching from the stands in three other games.
Joining Troost-Ekong in the club wilderness is one of Eagles best AFCON players, Ola Aina, who locked down the Eagles right back role in Cameroon and played as if his life depended on it, but has since been pitifully lost in Torino’s radar since the Cameroon disappointment.
Aina lost favours with Croatian coach Ivan Juric on his arrival from Cameroon as just like Troost-Ekong, he’s only been good enough for just four bench selections to further compound ‘Cerezo’ worries ahead of the big double clash.
While Troost-Ekong’s and Aina’s cases are that of falling out of favours with their coaches, Glasgow Rangers’ central defender Leon Balogun and Turkey-based defender Chidozie Awaziem battled injuries to limit their clubs’ actions.
Injury forced Balogun’s AFCON absence, but he recovered to get back into club action but was stretchered off again injured after just 15 minutes in their league game against Hibernian on February 9 but returned on February 24 to continue his gradual process to regular football.
Balogun would start the game at St. Johnstone since returning from injury and it will be the best piece of cheering news for ‘Cerezo’ should be maintain his starting spot in the next Rangers’ five games leading up to the big first leg clash in Cape Coast on March 25.
Their last game at Dundee before the trip to Ghana comes four days before the clash and barring any injury, Balogun could return as the lone member of the famed “Oyinbo Wall” as it will only take a damning gambling ‘Cerezo’ to play match rusty Troost-Ekong should his club shut out continue at Watford.
Alanyaspor versatile defender Awaziem was a huge prospect to partner Troost-Ekong at AFCON but his injury paved the way for Leganes defender Kenneth Omeruo to piece together his chequered Eagles career but it appears Awaziem’s full return to regular club action is not in the plans of Spanish coach Felipe Sanchez yet.
Awaziem has only seen one action for his Turkish side – 62nd minute appearance for Alanyaspor in the Turkish Cup penalty lottery defeat of Adana Demirspor on February 10.
Eagles left Jamilu Collins returned from Cameroon to the warm welcome of Paderborn’s bench and remained there for four straight games after Cameroon to return to 90 minutes action for the first time since AFCON against Erzgebirge Aue on February 25.
Collins’ return to action will only gladden Cerezo’s heart that all may not be completely lost as his direct rival Porto ace Zaidu Sanusi is still his marauding self for Portuguese giants FC Porto and he is expected to keep his exciting momentum in Cape Coast and in the reverse fixture in Abuja.
With Balogun and Collins gradually settling down to regular club though with the double headers criminally drawing near, Eguavoen’s major headaches could just narrow down to Troost-Ekong, Aina and Awaziem, given the importance of the clash.
Balogun’s newest defensive pair at Rangers, Calvin Ughelumba Bassey, who’s currently enjoying regular club action at Ibrox Park, could be a valuable addition to the team but it appears ‘Cerezo’ will settle for Ekong/Omeruo combo, if Balogun was again unavailable.
Bassey is in the form of his life since breaking into Geovanni van Bronkhorst’s team last December, but may be considered not solid enough for Cerezo’s nod in the heart of defence as the former Gombe United coach may settle for experience and age for the big Ghana clash.
Aina could be still Cerezo’s choice at right back regular football, considering the former Chelsea starlet’s outstanding Cameroon outing and as Tyronne Ebuehi of Venezia is injured.
Awaziem could also still he gambled at right back as Cerezo is expected to stick with experience to keep the Black Stars attack led by Crystal Palace striker Jordan Ayew in check.
The Eagles midfield will come alive again following the arrival of Leicester City’s Ademola Lookman who has recently been cleared by FIFA to dump the Three Lions for Eagles as the former England youth international will be expected to bring more vision and direction in the vastly improved midfield going forward
The Eagles attack is something very close to Eguavoen’s heart and may not be worrying his head after all as the West African bitter rivals stand between them and Qatar, with the full squad firing very well at club level.
Club versus country rows prevented star striker and hitman Victor Osimhen, Watford star Emmanuel Dennis and comebacking 2019 AFCON top scorer, Odion Ighalo from hitting Cameroon, while injury confined the Belgian Jupiler top scorer Paul Onuachu to watch from the treatment table.
These missing men are back, better and with bigger bang and will be expected to lead Nigeria to shoot down the Black Stars for their flight to Qatar.
Though the Eagles attack remains the sharpest and fiercest in Africa currently, all is certainly not well with the Eagles’ rear as the key gladiators – Troost-Ekong and Aina – are not featuring regularly with their European clubs.
Should Troost-Ekong, Aina and Awaziem return to regular club football with just three weeks leading to the first leg in Cape Coast, they may not hit the topmost competitive levels for this game of immense magnitude.
The Black Stars, on the other hand, are not smiling, after they got rid of Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac and have threatened to send Eagles to the cleaners to atone for a most disastrous outing in Cameroon.
All of the Ghana last line up in the humiliating Comoros’ ouster are still firing regularly in their respective clubs and with a few addition, the Black Stars must be confident of their chances.
Though captain Dede Ayew will not be available on the first leg before home fans in Cape Coast, due to red card suspension, Ghana may not be worrying about any headache after all as they will be spoilt for choice to pick from options scattered all over the world.
Whether ‘Cerezo’ worries about the form of key players to clubs’ limited actions or not, the ticket to Qatar will be won or lost on the superior technicalities of the drawing board.