AFCON 2019: Gernot Rohr names 25-man S/Eagles provisional list

The German coach has opted not to pull any surprises with an uninspired Super Eagles Africa Cup of Nations selection

Gernot Rohr—predictably—has opted to play it safe with Nigeria’s provisional 25-man Africa Cup of Nations squad, which was announced on Tuesday.

Despite the underperformance of several key names at club level, there have been no unexpected inclusions and no new faces drafted into the 25-man squad.

In fact, Rohr has largely opted to stick with the players who contested—and arguably underperformed—at the World Cup in Russia last year.

There have only been six players from that squad who haven’t even made Rohr’s preliminary 25 or backup six.

The omissions of Victor Moses and Tyonne Ebuehi were taken out of Rohr’s hands due to international retirement and injury respectively, with neither man donning the green of Nigeria since the World Cup.

Of the other four, Simy Nwankwo, a late inclusion into the fold ahead of Russia, has made one appearance since—scoring in the exhibition match against Liberia—but was then discarded, even though he’s scored 14 goals in Serie B so far this season.

Nwankwo Simy

It’s intriguing that Rohr opted to consider the forward ahead of Russia—due to his ability to offer a Plan B due to his physique, and his fine form—but has overlooked him subsequently, even though the attacker scored on his last Nigeria appearance (and second Super Eagles start).

The others to have been axed are Joel Obi, Elderson Echiejile and Ogenyi Onazi, all veterans of the Stephen Keshi years.

While few will contest Elderson’s stepping away from the limelight, Onazi’s omission represents the nadir of a startling decline; he started three of Nigeria’s last four pre-World Cup matches, but underperformance against England and the Czech Republic denied him the chance to feature at all in Russia.

A start in the 3-0 Afcon qualifying victory over Seychelles wasn’t enough to salvage his international career, and he’s been unused ever since.

For Obi, who has also featured since the World Cup, inactivity at club level appears to have cost him the chance to resume his stop-start international career.

There won’t be too many complaints about the beneficiaries of these six absentees.

Jamilu Collins - Nigeria vs. Libya

Jamilu Collins has started Nigeria’s last seven matches, and is now Rohr’s first-choice at left-back. Incidentally, the wideman is yet to be on the losing side with the West Africans.

Similarly, Henry Onyekuru and Moses Simon—both of whom had injury concerns ahead of the World Cup—have returned to the squad, while Victor Osimhen, Samuel Kalu and Samuel Chukwueze have added youthful verve to the attacking roster.

It remains to be seen whether all of these five offensive options make the cut for the final 23-man squad itself.

The inclusion of Villarreal’s Chukwueze comes after the youngster was omitted from Paul Aigbogun’s U-20 World Cup squad, although Ikouwem Utin and Valentine Ozornwafor—both of whom will travel to Poland—have been named as back-ups for the Afcon.

The other new faces in the squad are Paul Onuahu, who takes Simy’s spot, as the ‘Plan B’, with the Denmark’s based frontman scoring on his first start in the opening stages of the recent Egypt friendly.

Paul Onuachu - Nigeria vs. Egypt

Semi Ajayi, a Rohr favourite, replaces Onazi, but is unlikely to start at the tournament despite his goalscoring form with Rotherham United.

Finally, Ola Aina, following a sterling year with Torino, has been given the nod ahead of Bryan Idowu—another member of the World Cup party—who’s been dropped to the standby list rather than axed altogether.

Despite Idowu’s unforgettable goalscoring start to his Nigeria career, this represents an upgrade, particularly considering Aina’s versatility and form on loan at Champions League-chasing Torino from Chelsea.

He represents an option in either full-back role, and his inclusion has allowed Rohr to skimp on defensive cover and instead include another attacker in his squad.

However, while there will be plenty of competition for attacking berths within Rohr’s set-up—with Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi likely to start—there remain concerns about Nigeria’s primary striker.

Odion Ighalo - Nigeria vs Seychelles

Odion Ighalo has been named despite picking up an injury that is expected to sideline him for the rest of May, although if fit, he must start after winning over Nigeria fans with seven international goals in the last 12 months.

He’ll be supported—presumably from the bench—by Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho.

Despite being one of Nigeria’s most high-profile players, Iheanacho’s inclusion is somewhat curious; the former Manchester City man was cut ahead of the second Seychelles game, following his poor form in the Premier League, yet returns to the fold despite no improvement at club level.

The 22-year-old has scored just one league goal all season, with 29 of his 30 appearances for the Foxes being goalless.

He hasn’t netted since Leicester’s 3-1 victory over Huddersfield Town in late September, subsequently going 28 games without finding the net in all competitions, 29 if his 69-minute showing in Nigeria’s 1-1 Afcon qualifying draw with South Africa is included.

Kelechi Iheanacho

It’s a truly miserable return, and based on current form, Iheanacho has no business being in the Nations Cup squad.

However, perhaps Rohr believes that the attacker’s problems are confidence-related and, if so, that a show of faith from his manager may make the difference between a striker low on his luck and one who’s capable of settling tight contests off the bench.

With Iheanacho included, there’s no place for Isaac Success, although tellingly, the Watford forward has exactly the same stats as his compatriot in the Premier League this term; 30 appearances, nine starts, only one goal scored.

Junior Ajayi, named on the standby list after injury undermined his previous attempts to make a name for himself with Nigeria, has been given the nod ahead of Success, having scored five goals in 20 outings for Al-Ahly last term.

It’s better than the Premier League duo—but only slightly, and against weaker defences—and ought to raise concerns about Nigeria’s central striker come June.

Junior Ajayi of Al-Ahly

One ideal solution could have been Tammy Abraham, who, once upon a time, appeared primed for an international future with Nigeria, only for Amaju Pinnick’s statement to that effect to appear to dissuade the striker.

It’s a bitter blow for the Super Eagles, particularly considering the Chelsea loanee’s outstanding campaign on loan at Aston Villa this term.

He’s scored 26 goals in 39 Championship appearances this season, and netted the decisive penalty in Villa’s shootout victory over West Bromwich Albion in their playoff semi-final shootout on Tuesday.

We may never know if Abraham was approached again about representing Nigeria again, although had he answered the call, Rohr’s cautious approach to sticking with his tried and tested striking options may not have come under such scrutiny.

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