Joel Obi: Hoping for an Injury-Free Season with Chievo

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Super Eagles midfielder, Joel Obi, last week moved from Torino to fellow Italian side Chievo Verona ahead of the new Serie A Season after the 27-year-old put pen to paper on a three-year deal for an undisclosed transfer fee in what would be his fourth club for an Italian side. After just making the numbers at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the question on the lips of observers is whether his latest move was to make a statement for Super Eagles Manager, Gernot Rohr

After signing for Chievo Verona from Torino, Super Eagles midfielder, Joel Obi said, “A new adventure is about to begin, but first of all I would like to thank my Torino teammates and all the staff for the unique years spent together.”

Chievo is his fourth Italian club after Inter Milan, Parma and Torino.

After winning the “Allievi Nazionali” Under-17 championship in 2008, Joel Obi was moved to the Primavera formation, where he had over 40 appearances and six goals in just under three years. In 2009, the then Inter Milan Manager, Jose Mourinho notice his immense talent and played him occasionally in the first-team. In 2010, even if without playing, he was registered to the club’s ‘A’ list of players, who won the UEFA Champions League against Bayern Munich.

With the arrival of Rafael Benitez in summer 2010, he moved Obi with the first-team and he made his debut for Inter in a Champions League group stage game against Werder Bremen where he played the final 10 minutes of the match after coming on as a substitute in the 80th minute.

After some cameo appearances in the Italian Serie A and Supercoppa Italiana injury came knocking and it was not until the 2012-13 season that Obi made another few appearances in the colours of the Nerrazzurri before he was sent on loan to Parma. His return to Inter two seasons later was not two impressive spending just a season before being shipped to Torino.

Since then his football career has been bleated by injuries. However, since the beginning of the season, Obi had shown blinks of his old self which probably was what convinced the German-born Nigerian coach to invite him for the two-headed friendly matches against Poland and Serbia, perhaps for a first-hand assessment.

His invitation will come four years after his last call-up to the national team, as his last game for the Super Eagles came in a friendly game in 2014 against Scotland.

He earned his first call to the Super Eagles in a friendly game against Sierra Leone in Lagos in 2011 and was full of promise, playing 11 games in a row for the senior national team before an injury put paid to his Eagles’ ambition. His next stint with the national team was during the preliminary of the 2014 World Cup but he never made Nigeria’s squad to the Mundial. Surprisingly, Gernot Rohr recalled the midfielder for the friendly games against Poland and Serbia prior to the World Cup, though he was part of the Super Eagles team to Russia, he never featured in any of the team’s group matches before being eliminated.

Obi indeed admitted that it would be tough breaking into the team with the calibre of players currently in the Super Eagles squad but felt he had something to offer.

“It’s good competition there (Super Eagles) and that’s what you want as a player. It’s only normal to have one eye on the World Cup. Every Nigerian player will want to get into that squad, but it’s based on merit. So, you’ll have to play well for your club and I’m doing that. I’ll focus on doing that, and then if I get the opportunity to play, it would be a dream come true,” Obi said before the kickoff of the Mundial.

In an interview with THISDAY, former Nigerian international, Friday Ekpo said his move to Chievo was good for him as long as he would enjoy his football there and an opportunity to still be relevant in the national team as he would always bring his experience to bear.

“He’s a vastly experienced player and for injuries that have really punctured his career, he supposed to be one of the leading top midfielders in Europe if not the world by now.“For now, he seems to be injury free and enjoying his game. One thing I know for sure is that on his good day and if he’s injury free he would add value to the team and his vast experience would be a plus,” Ekpo said.

The former Inter man, now 27, is presumably at the peak of his physical powers. He made nine appearances (eight of those starts) in all competitions for Torino last season, scoring three times and assisting twice. Then again, there has never been any uncertainty over his productivity and ability. What is rather less apparent is how consistently his skills can be harnessed.

Last season, Obi missed five weeks due to injury. In 2016/17, that number was 13. In 2015/16, it was 20. This is the tragedy at the very core of a wondrous talent, the thorn in his flesh as it were: to be eternally buffeted by muscular injuries.

Yet, so great is his talent and range that, when fit, he is impossible to ignore, and this is true both for club and country. Following that initial stumble, the reboot of the national team did eventually happen under the late Stephen Keshi, and when he had secured a ticket to the 2014 World Cup, it was to Joel Obi he turned to improve the then African champions.

His slaloming brilliance and deft left foot would not have looked out of place in Brazil. Predictably though, just on the eve of the final squad announcement, he suffered yet another injury, drawing a long, plaintive sigh from all and sundry.

For former Super Eagles defensive midfielder, Waidi Akani, Obi’s condition would determine whether he is still good for the national team.

“Though Super Eagles midfield is not a department that the team is having many problems but Rohr could still use him in other areas. After all, he has been used as a defender for his Italian club at one point or the other. He could, therefore, explore other areas,” Akani said.

The former NEPA of Lagos player, however, emphasised that it was not yet Eldorado for the former Torino midfielder, that what would really guarantee a place in the Super Eagles team is how well his body condition is.

“His talent has never been in doubt. He is one player I admire so much and sympathisewith. The question has always been on his fitness,” he noted.

The 26-year-old has played in the Italian Serie A for Inter Milan, Parma and Torino, he has made a total of 15 appearances for the Super Eagles and is yet to register a goal.

Obi has made just 105 league appearances in the seven years since he jogged on to the San Siro pitch to replace Philippe Coutinho.