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Correspondent ’TANA AIYEJINA takes a look at some players who could help fortify Samson Siasia’s U-23 side, as they hope to put up a fine performance at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro
The draw for the men’s football event of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games took place on Friday with 1996 gold medalists, the Nigerian U-23 team, paired in Group B alongside Colombia, Japan and Sweden.
The Nigerian team won the African championship, which served as qualifiers for the Olympics, in Senegal late last year amidst reported “poor conditions” but coach Samson Siasia — who led the team to a silver-medal finish at Beijing 2008 — would be hoping to go one step further, by claiming gold in Rio.
Below are some players, who did not take part at the African championship, but are under the age limit and could help fortify the U-23 team in their quest for glory:
Isaac Success (Club: Granada CF, DOB: 07/02/1996)
Success was a member of Nigeria’s U-17 national team, which won the U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2013. After the tournament, he sealed a five-year deal with Udinese for €400,000 but joined Granada in the Segunda Division B the following year.
On August 31, 2014, Success made his first-team debut, starting in a 1–1 draw against Elche at the age of 18 years and seven months and becoming the Andalusians’ youngest player ever to appear in a La Liga match.
The powerful forward hasn’t looked back ever since, churning out some fantastic displays and becoming a key player for the team as they strive to retain their La Liga status. He had appeared 19 times by the end of last season and was rewarded for a highly promising debut campaign with a contract extension through to 2019.
Last year, Success scored two goals in four games for the Flying Eagles at the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
He is a quick, strong and confident forward whose daring and incisive dribbling causes regular problems for opposing defences. His physique and persistence make him a real handful for his markers. He is capable of playing through the middle, but Granada manager Jose Ramon Sandoval currently views him as a player who can offer more to his team from a wide starting position on either the left or right flank.
The 20-year-old will bring quality and versatility to Siasia’s team if given the nod by the coach.
Umar Sadiq (Club: AS Roma, DOB: 02/02/1997)
The striker joined Serie B side Spezia Calcio in 2013 and scored a record-breaking 26 goals in 27 matches in the Italian youth league, thus catching the eye of top Italian sides. But it was Roma who sealed a deal with the Kaduna-born player, first on a season-long loan deal last year, with an option to sign Sadiq on a permanent basis.
After impressive performances in the Primavera team, scoring 14 times in 10 games, and also hitting the back of the net thrice in four UEFA Youth League matches, Roma manager Rudi Garcia handed the gangling striker his Serie A debut in November 2015 against Bologna, coming on as an 88th minute substitute in the 2-2 draw.
He scored his first Serie A goal on December 20, 2015, in 2-0 win against Genoa and was on target again in Roma’s 3-3 draw at Chievo Verona in January.
The lanky Sadiq has been likened to Nigerian legend Nwamkwo Kanu, due to his silky skills and could bolster coach Samson Siasia’s attack in Rio.
Alex Iwobi (Club: Arsenal, DOB: 03/05/1996)
Iwobi is undoubtedly Nigeria’s biggest football prospect at the moment.
With no trophies within reach, though, 2015/16 season’s silver lining is not a piece of silverware for Arsenal but a player: Iwobi.
The 19-year-old’s emergence has been a timely one for Arsenal. In successive Premier League games he has scored against Everton, scored and set up Alexis Sanchez against Watford and chalked up two assists against West Ham.
Iwobi is young, intelligent and versatile; an academy product with over a decade at Arsenal, who possesses luminous talent. His expert technique and creative problem-solving in the final third are products of this very specific education.
ESPN’s Tom Adams wrote about Iwobi’s meteoric rise at the Gunners, “Of the competitors for his position, Theo Walcott doesn’t possesses anything like Iwobi’s football brain and potential; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a clever, versatile player but cannot at present compete with Iwobi’s final product; Joel Campbell has had a better season than many would have expected but doesn’t seem to command Wenger’s faith in the same way Iwobi does.”
Wenger has this to say of his product, “If there have been some positives in the last few months, it’s how well and how quickly he’s emerged as a player with a good impact.”
Born in Lagos to Nigerian parents, Iwobi had a chance to represent England at senior level but he opted for the Super Eagles and played his first two competitive games against Egypt last month. Siasia brought on the player late on in both games but the youngster, a nephew of Austin Okocha, added bite, zeal and energy to the team on both occasions, even though he spent little time on the pitch.
But Siasia could be thinking of giving him a bigger role in Rio.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Club: Manchester City, DOB: 03/10/1996)
The 19-year-old was the star of the 2013 U-17 World Cup, emerging as the best player as Nigeria finished winners in the UAE.
Iheanacho joined Manchester City’s Academy in January 2014 but he was promoted to the Manchester City senior squad for the 2015/16 season following his impressive form in pre-season, where he scored twice against Roma and VfB Stuttgart.
The youngster grabbed his first competitive goal in September 2015 when he banged in the winner against Crystal Palace and followed that performance up with his first career hat-trick against Aston Villa in the FA Cup in January. And then he scored again against Tottenham Hotspurs.
The following month, he was included in City’s UEFA Champions League squad at the expense of the injured Samir Nasri and he made a brief appearance in the 1-0 win over PSG at the Etihad.
Iheanacho has rapidly created a reputation for himself with his instinctive finishing and ability to play as either an orthodox striker or in a slightly more withdrawn role, with quick feet and an eye for a pass.
In Iheanancho, City have a young footballer with a wonderful touch, technique and the nerve to try things out of the ordinary.
Kenneth Omeruo (Club: Kasimpasa, DOB: 17/10/1993)
At just 22, Omeruo has established himself as a centre-back in the Super Eagles, since helping the team win the 2013 Africa Cups of Nations in South Africa.
He represented Nigeria at U-17 level (2009) and U-20 World Cup (2011). A few months after the U-17 tourney on home soil, Omeruo joined Belgian side Standard Liege. He was thereafter signed by Chelsea in 2012 and the Blues loaned him out to Dutch club ADO Den Haag, where he was named as the club’s best player for the 2012/13 season.
At 6ft 1in, Omeruo is a strong defender both aerially and in one-on-one situations and exudes so much confidence playing against some of the world’s best strikers as typified by his performances at the 2013 AFCON, where he kept Ivoirian Didier Drogba quiet in a quarter-final game and at the 2014 Confederations Cup, where he caused problems for Uruguayans Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani.
William Troost-Ekong (Club: Haugesund, DOB: 01/09/1993)
Born to a Nigerian father and Dutch mother, Troost-Ekong represented The Netherlands at U-19 and U-20 levels but then shifted allegiance to Nigeria at senior level.
The 22-year-old made his Eagles debut against Chad in Kaduna last June and immediately warmed his way to the hearts of the country’s football-crazy fans.
His no-nonsense approach in the centre of defence, comportment, timely tackles and strength stood him out.
Troost-Ekong signed for Belgian club Gent at the beginning of the season but joined Norwegian club Haugesund on loan and was handed the captaincy of the side at the beginning of the 2016 season.
The player, who began his senior career at Tottenham Hotspurs, has expressed his desire to feature at the Olympics and would be hoping for a call from coach Siasia pretty soon.
”I do have contact with the coach sometimes but we have not arranged when I am meeting with them next. I have been following the U-23 team progress and I still want to play for the team. I have not heard what the programme will be exactly, but still I do think I would be interested,” Troost-Ekong stated.
Moses Simon (Club: KAA Gent, DOB: 12/07/1995)
Dutch giants Ajax would probably be ruing their luck after letting Simon slip through their fingers in 2013. The Amsterdam side were not impressed with the qualities of Simon, who had gone there on trials and recommended him to Slovakian AS Trencin, a club owned by ex-Ajax player, Tshcen La Ling.
And Simon grabbed his chance. In 39 games for Trencin, he scored 17 goals; predominantly from a wide left or support striking role. Although he only made his pro debut in March 2014, Simon soon showed his quality and helped Trencin to a record second place finish in the Fortuna League.
The 20-year-old joined Gent in January 2015 and scored a hat-trick on his first start in the Jupiler League against Lokeren.
Simon was an unused member of Nigeria’s squad at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey in 2013 and also played at last year’s edition edition of the tournament as Nigeria crashed out in the Round of 16.
The petite forward made his Eagles debut against Uganda last year and scored his first goal for Nigeria in an international friendly against Niger last September.
Simon’s primary assets are his finishing, speed, dribbling ability and decision making. Although just 168cm tall, he is seldom intimidated physically and has made an almost seamless adjustment to senior football in Europe.
Godswill Ekpolo (Club: Barcelona B, DOB: 14/05/1995)
Though not popular back in Nigeria, Ekpolo has steadily asserted himself in Barcelona’s B team and could become one of their future stars if he blossoms into the star that the Catalans expect him to become.
Born in Benin City, the 20-year-old left Nigeria as a toddler and grew up in Spain, where he started his football education at age eight with CD Torreforta. After three seasons there, Barcelona came calling, and the youngster packed his bags and headed to Barca’s famed academy.
Ekpolo is hoping to be part of the squad in Brazil after missing the African U-23 Championship in Senegal, which served as qualifiers for Rio 2016.
He stated, “It was painful missing the tournament. But there is little I can do as I did not get clearance from my club to report (for the tournament).
“I have been following the team. And I prayed that they qualified for the Olympics. This is because I hope to be available to contribute to the success of the team. I have also been in touch with coach Siasia.”
Ekpolo is primarily a right-back but is comfortable as a centre-back and can also play as a defensive midfielder. He has a penchant for scoring goals from his position.
Aaron Samuel (Club: CSKA Moscow, DOB: 04/06/1994)
Currently on loan at CSKA, striker Samuel shot to national limelight during the qualifiers for the 2015 AFCON, notching two goals as Nigeria failed to qualify for the continent’s top football showpiece.
Then based in China, he was snubbed by erstwhile coach, Sunday Oliseh, but Siasia handed the powerful striker a return to the national team during March’s double header against Egypt as Nigeria once again failed to qualify for next year’s AFCON.
Samuel is big, strong and uses his strength to bully his way past defenders. He is a clinical finisher and very deadly inside the box.
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Source: Punch News