BY DAMI UGBANE*
Which of the Super Eagles have been Nigeria’s key men during their successful World Cup qualifying campaign as they became Africa’s first side to confirm their place in Russia?
John Obi Mikel: ‘Form is temporary, class is permanent’.
That appears to be the case for Mikel, who has enjoyed his best FIFA World Cup qualification campaign in three attempts with the Super Eagles.
It was initially feared that the captain would struggle for form and fitness after being sidelined by Antonio Conte at Chelsea, at the start of the 2016/17 season and his subsequent move to the Chinese Super League (CSL) in January.
He proved all doubters wrong by scoring two goals in the campaign to date, acting as the team’s midfield general and constantly setting the rhythm for every meaningful attacking foray.
Kudos should be given to the coaching crew, who properly managed the 30-year-old playmaker.
Victor Moses missed the first game of the qualification series in the away win to Zambia in Ndola and that threatened to set him on a collision course with the fans.
He made a positive return in the next game against Algeria, netting a brace and going on to have a decisive performance over two legs against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon.
The Chelsea wing-back tops the scorers chart for Nigeria with three goals in four matches, providing one assist.
His all-action style and experience has been the major catalyst for the Super Eagles in the final third of the pitch, as he continues to lead the way for his teammates.
William Troost-Ekong was an unknown and untrusted addition when he made his international debut for Nigeria against Chad in 2015.
Initially, the big central defender wasn’t convincing in the green-and-white colours, which led to his exclusion from the team for a seven-month period.
However, a brilliant showing at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics led to a second chance in the team, an opportunity he has gratefully grabbed without looking back.
Troost-Ekong, who remarkably remains the only Super Eagles player to feature in every single minute of the qualification series to date, has formed a dependable defensive partnership with Leon Balogun, nicknamed the Oyinbo-Wall.
The duo have conceded just two goals in the four games they’ve have lined up together at the back.
Leon Balogun is a low maintenance and hardworking team player, who was recommended to the team as a backup right-back on the eve of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but sadly got injured only a few minutes into his international debut against Mexico.
His first attempt at playing in the heart of the Super Eagles defence alongside Troost-Ekong ended in defeat by the Democratic Republic of Congo as they were constantly torn apart by the rampaging Congolese forwards.
Two years on, and the Mainz 05 man has stepped up forming a rock solid partnership with Troost-Ekong at the back, becoming one of the first names on the team sheet.
He battles like a true warrior on the pitch, exhibiting unrivalled braveness in four successive outings in the qualification campaign for Nigeria.
Alex Iwobi wrote his name in the history books of Nigeria football by netting the decisive goal against Zambia in Uyo, securing the Super Eagles’ sixth FIFA World Cup qualification.
The Arsenal playmaker missed the crucial double-header against Cameroon in September through injury, but returned to net his second goal in three qualification games.
His strike completed a fine double, as he also netted against the Chipolopolo in the opening qualifier at the start of the campaign.