With Adebayo Olodan
The major news in Nigerian football at the weekend is the debut of 18-year-old goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho for his La Liga club, Deportivo La Coruna.
Uzoho who was a member of the 2013 Golden Eaglets squad was called to action after first choice shot stopper, Ruben picked up an injury in the previous game, leaving manager Pepe Mel to pick the youngster ahead of former Man City goalkeeper and Romanian international, Pantilimon who is second choice to Ruben.
With Carl Ikeme unlikely to recover fully from leukaemia next June and Vincent Enyeama still yet to recover from his injury, Coach Gernot Rohr may need not hesitate to extend a call-up to Uzoho especially as the German tactician remains unconvinced with the trio of Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi and Dele Ajiboye.
Recall that in this column last week; ‘Now that Eagles have landed in Russia…’ I suggested names of players that should be invited to bolster the Super Eagles squad ahead of Russia 2018.
Among those I suggested to strengthen the squad is Francis Uzoho, who I said was making progress at his Spanish club.
Uzoho was present at the 2013 U-17 World Cup at the United Arab Emirates as back up to Dele Alampasu. The former wasn’t in goal throughout the tournament but his heroics with Aspire Academy in Qatar were good enough for the La Liga club to snap him up.
By representing Deportivo in La Liga, Uzoho becomes the fourth African to play for the 1999/2000 champions after Peter Rufai (1997 to 1999) and Cameroon’s Jacques Songo’o also having two stints with the former UEFA Champions League semi finalists.
`Songo’o’s return in 2004 made him the then second oldest player to play in the La Liga at 40 years. Uzoho is the third Nigeria player to play at Spanish top flight after Rufai and Wilfred Agbonavbare.
For those who may not align with my opinion on the goaltender, here are seven reasons the Super Eagles need Uzoho in Russia;
Possess attributes of great keepers
Uzoho has the attributes of great and commanding goalkeepers like Oliver Kahn, Gianluigi Buffon, Edwin Van der Saar and Peter Schmeichel .
Tall, commanding and blessed with a fine grip, the 18-year-old showed no nerves as he made four quality saves against Eibar at the weekend. To consider that he only arrived from Qatar based Aspire Academy last year, make his progress at the Spanish club more overwhelming.
Akpeyi, Ezenwa inspire little confidence
In the absence of Vincent Enyeama and Carl Ikeme both Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa have had their fair share of chances but neither of the two have shown reasons to be trusted with the gloves in Russia. Though Ezenwa showed some flashes, his communication skills and poor reading of the game cost the team points against Cameroon and the scenario almost played out in the last match against Zambia. If Ezenwa could give away ‘cheap penalty’ against the Indomitable Lions, you can imagine how many spot kicks the net minder will text wrap if he comes up against Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jnr and Harry Kane in Russia.
Enyeama’s return may rock the boat
Though there have been consistent screech for Enyeama to return to Eagles, I however believe such move may backfire if not well managed. Until his retirement from the national team, the former Enyimba was the longest serving member and captain of the group. If he eventually returns, Enyeama may find it difficult seeing the new skipper Mikel John Obi or his vice Ogenyi Onazi controlling the dressing room or passing instructions to him on the pitch. The Lille shot-stopper surely have his loyalists in the current squad and his coming may divide the dressing room with another section of the team loyal to Mikel.
Young keepers hold the ace
Unlike in the past when coaches put their fate in veteran goalkeepers, these days, teenagers like Gianluigi Donnarumma, David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois have proven such judgement wrong.
At the age of 17, Donnarumma became the youngest goalkeeper in Italy history to keep goal for the Azzuris and AC Milan. The teenager made his debut for Italy in a friendly against France as he came on at halftime to replace the legendary Gigi Buffon. Interestingly, Donnarumma wasn’t even born when Buffon made his Italy debut.
In France, a certain Alban Lafont is Toulouse’s first choice after making Ligue 1 history with his debut at the age of 16 years and 10 months last November.
Like Donnarumma, Courtois and De Gea at age 18 were already standing between the sticks for top European clubs and also made their debut for Belgium and Spain respectively. Like his compatriots, Uzoho deserves to be handed the gloves by the senior national team.
La Liga experience
Not many keepers are providential to be trusted with the gloves in arguably the best league in the world (La Liga) at 18 but Uzoho achieved the feat at the weekend.
Uzoho did not just mind the net for Deportivo but also accompanied it with a clean sheet in the match against Eibar, making four saves in the process.
Uzoho can only get better
Uzoho is one keeper whose development has been remarkable. Before the commencement of the season, he was in the youth team and was later promoted to the position of fourth choice keeper by Mel.
Thanks to Uzoho’s sterling performances for the team during their pre-season training, where he kept a clean sheet in the two matches he played, the lad was officially unveiled as a member of the squad in August and became the third in the pecking order after Reuben and Pantilimon, a few weeks ago.
After injury to Reuben, Uzoho worked twice harder in training to upstage former Man City goalkeeper and Romanian international, Pantilimon who is second choice to Ruben.
Defending the reason he selected Uzoho ahead of Pantilimon at the weekend, Deportivo manager, Pepe Mel said; “A coach has to act according to the things he sees in training.
“He is only 18 and he can barely speak Spanish but I know what he can offer this club.”
The progress made by the Nigerian this season is unbelievable and before the World Cup next summer, the former schoolboy international would have garnered valuable experience and tested by Messi, Ronaldo and Antoinne Griezman.
Need for healthy competition
Inviting Uzoho who will turn 19 on October 28, to the national team will provide healthy competition that should lead to improvement in the trio of Ajiboye, Akpeyi and Ezenwa. Also, coach Rohr will have more alternatives in the goalkeeping department and team selection ahead of the World Cup in Russia.