Paul Onuachu: Nigeria’s new hero and Gernot Rohr’s potential saviour
The Super Eagles ended their qualification campaign for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with two wins in very contrasting circumstances, and may have launched a new star in the process.
The visit of Seychelles was a dead rubber, and was largely played in a subdued atmosphere, with the outcome almost assured despite the best attempts of the Pirates to make it interesting in the first half. Facing seven-time African champions Egypt, for all that it was a friendly, had higher stakes, as it afforded a chance to see the team go up against a direct rival for AFCON glory. There was a palpable nerviness that was only made worse by the narrow score line.
The star of the show, aside Nigeria’s solid defensive pairing of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong, was newcomer Paul Onuachu, whose volley after only eight seconds settled the contest and is, per the official record, the second fastest ever scored in international football.”Some people say I only score with my head, but once I got the ball I just thought to myself to shoot and that’s all I did,” Onuachu revealed.
As his lips opened for what sounds like his nimble footwork, he added: “Scoring the quickest goal for Nigeria does not guarantee me anything yet, so I need to keep working hard to stay in the team.”
It was quite the introduction for the FC Midtjylland striker, who first appeared on the radar three years. His goal against Manchester United in the Europa League Round of 16 first Leg made everyone sit up and take notice, but he has had to prove himself consistently in order to earn this chance. So far this season, he has hit 17 goals in the Danish league, the same number as he managed all of last season. In a way, this felt almost overdue.
However one feels about that, what is undeniable is that Onuachu’s own sense of timing is impeccable. He has arrived at just the right time (Rohr stated after the game that his squad is now closed to new call-ups ahead of the Nations Cup), and in just the right circumstances to resolve a very particular problem: that of a Plan B for the national team.
Rohr’s best efforts in this regards involved taking Crotone’s Simeon Nwankwo to last year’s World Cup, but the lanky forward has not featured since. With Onuachu’s ability to not only be a target man upfront, but to also show a good turn of pace and nifty footwork, that need may have now been met, increasing the team’s potential to mix it up in tight situations.
If there is one lesson from this, it is that there are always options out there, and as such there can be no one player holding the entire nation hostage to his whim. This will be a wake-up call to the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, who continues to struggle for form and game time at Leicester, as well as substantive captain John Obi Mikel, absent since the World Cup of his own volition.
If eventually both are brought back into the fold, they will do so with the consciousness that they have a point to prove. Anything less than an actual meritocracy could lead to frayed egos in the dressing room. It is a tricky situation that further turns up the heat on Rohr going into the summer.
The 64-year-old is rightly pleased with his achievements in the role, and his record is still a strong answer to those who are less than impressed with his work, but a poor outing in Egypt could see things change very quickly. Already, there is some friction between him and the NFF; first of all, over the choice of Asaba as a host for Super Eagles matches.
The state of the playing surface at the Stephen Keshi Stadium has drawn outrage from the media, football fans and opponents alike, and the players themselves are reportedly displeased with it. Yet, Nigeria’s last three internationals have all been played in Asaba, clearly against the wishes of Rohr.
There is also some dissonance over the Super Eagles status going into the Nations Cup: whereas the NFF is convinced that Nigeria is well-placed to win a fourth title, the coach last week shot down any suggestion his side is one of the favourites, insisting there are a number of countries with a better chance.
This is a far cry from the synergy that obtained in the early days of Rohr’s tenure in charge, when it seemed his cordial relationship with NFF President Amaju Pinnick insulated him from censure somewhat.Instead, things have never been less certain for Rohr than they are now. It would be fitting if the very last player he allowed into the fold is the one who ends up keeping him in the job in Egypt.