Super Eagles’s weakest link is the left full back manned by Elderson Echiejile. However, Ola Aina, who recently switched allegiance to Nigeria after he had played for England at the age-grade level, may be the solution. Kunle Adewale writes
O la Aina has been rated as the player with the highest number of possession won in his defensive area in the English Championship so far this season.
“He has won possession in the defensive area more times (34) than any other player in the Championship this season,” Whoscored tweeted. Since joining Hull City on loan from Chelsea during the summer transfer window, 20-year-old Aina has been present for the 2014 FA Cup losing finalists.
It therefore came as little surprise when the utility full-back was included in the English Championship’s Team of the Week for Match Day 11 of the current campaign. He narrowly missed out on a Man-of-the-Match Award penultimate week, in the Tigers 6-1 thrashing of Birmingham.
Aina had a game rating of 7.9, making three key clearances, one interception and four tackles, while also winning 11 of his 18 duels. The wing-back also had a pass accuracy of 70 per cent and completing three of his four dribbles.
Though many Nigerian soccer fans were relieved when Nigeria scooped four points from the available six against Cameroon, keen followers of the game were worried as the Cameroonians exploited the weakness in the left back of the Super Eagles manned by Elderson Echiejile, considered Nigeria’s weakest link in the defence.
Though Aina is naturally a right footed player, he is comfortable with his left foot.
“I find it more comfortable playing left-back. To be honest, I don’t know why, but I feel comfortable playing there. If I have to do a job on the right I will feel the same. It’s not difficult for me,” Aina said.
Speaking with THISDAY, former Nigerian international, Waidi Akani strongly believes that the former junior international has done enough to win Gernot Rohr’s confidence in the Eagles defence but said the experience of Echiejile would still count for him for now.
“I have seen Aina play on few occasions and I am convinced that he can comfortably man the Super Eagles defence, but you cannot compare anything with experience. I think Echiejile should surely start ahead of him.
“The coach would always count on the experience of Echiejile, some may argue that Aina is faster and probably has a faster recovery rate, but when the chips are down, there is no argument about who should start, and it would definitely be Echiejile.
“One thing anybody cannot argue is the fact that Aina is the future of Super Eagles defence,” Akani noted.
In a telephone chat with THISDAY from his base in America, former Nigeria midfielder, Paul Okuku said he had watched some of Aina’s clips and feels that he has a place in the national team if he decides to play for Nigeria.
“It is left for the coaching crew to decide if he is good enough to play for the team, but from the little I have seen of him, I have no doubt in my mind that he has a place in the team, if not now, surely in the nearest future,” Okoku noted.
Continuing he said, “When you consider the fact that the World Cup is a different kettle of fish, we therefore need our best legs. The fact that Aina can play anywhere in the back four is an added advantage as the defence was the weakest link in most of our games.”
Asked if the trend of relying on foreign players to prosecute our matches was not a wrong signal to the local league, Okoku said, “Unfortunately, that is the situation we found ourselves.”
Aina who was loaned out to English Championship side Hull City by Chelsea for the 2017/18 season, has been with Chelsea since he was a kid and this will be his first loan move from the English champions.
He has also played for England at U16, U17, U18, U19 and U20 levels but had recently committed his international future to Nigeria.
He has made six first team appearances for the Blues but is now continuing his football education with the Tigers in the Championship.
“I’m very excited to be here and it is the start of a new chapter in my career. It’s my first loan move away from Chelsea and I just want to hit the ground running,” Aina said
In what is apparently becoming a norm for the eggheads of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, to woo European players of Nigerian origin to play for the Super Eagles as the local league is not incubating enough players capable of donning the national team’s shirt, Aina has since joined Nigeria’s World Cup qualifying train.
Super Eagles captain and former Chelsea player, Mikel Obi, was one of those that influenced the former England Under-20 player to represent Nigeria as against the country of his birth after Aina impressed in Chelsea pre-season debut against Bristol Rovers.
It came as no surprise that Chelsea eventually loaned him out as the Blues have long been criticised for failing to provide a pathway from their all-conquering youth sides, which have been crowned European champions in the past two seasons, to the first team but Conte intends to change that.
“People who know me will know I don’t gift a place to anyone, but only those who deserve to play will play for me. It is important for Aina to understand this. In the future, he can play from the start. Age is not important. I made my first appearance in Serie A at only 16,” Conte had said when he newly joined Chelsea last season.
The 19-year-old was born in Southwark, London and has represented England youth sides and UEFA Youth League 2014/15.