Not since the controversial transfer of John Mikel Obi from Lyn FK to Chelsea for €20 million in July 2006 has Nigeria had a high-profile transfer like Manchester United signing Odion Ighalo from Shanghai Shenhua on deadline day in the January 2020 transfer window.
The biggest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought a halt to sporting activities, world politics and business on the planet.
But just before every European league (sans Belarus) decided to halt football activities, many young Nigerian footballers were having their best campaigns yet in European football. Here are six promising Nigerian players who could be set for a big move this year.
1. Wilfred Ndidi (23)
Jamie Vardy may get the goals, and James Maddison may provide the assists, but Leicester City’s most important player is Nigeria’s holding midfielder, Onyinye Wilfred Ndidi. One merely has to look at how Leicester struggled in his absence this season to get a glimpse of his importance to the Foxes.
Due to his efficiency at breaking up play & recovering possession, he’s the singular reason Brendan Rodgers has been ambitious in his set-up this season, fielding two attack-minded midfielders (Youri Tielemans and Maddison) & two attacking fullbacks (Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira).
Since arriving Leicester in a £17 million deal from Genk in January 2017, he’s featured in 111 PL games out of a possible 124, missing just 13 games in total. He missed six PL matches this season, and Rodgers’ men failed to win five of them.
Leicester’s first semifinal appearance in the Carabao Cup at Villa Park was their first in 20 years, and the team struggled to gain parity in that game and were knocked out.
For the last three seasons, he’s been at the top end of the stats table for successful tackles, recoveries & interceptions, facing competition from Manchester City’s Fernandinho & current Paris St Germain talisman, Idrissa Gana Gueye.
This season, he’s retained his spot on the throne, and not even Liverpool’s Fabinho has been able to match his dynamism & ability to screen the back four due to his intelligence in sensing dangerous opposition attacks. He’s redefining the “Makélélé role,” and with a €42 million valuation according to transfermarkt.com, he’s one player that’d be making his next big move soon.
2. William Troost-Ekong (26)
Signed in the summer of 2018 for €3.3 million from Turkish side Bursaspor, the Dutch-born Nigerian has been one of the best Serie A centre backs this season as his commanding displays have shown.
He’s a key player for Udinese, missing just 3 of the 26 matches that the Zebrette have have played this season. According to whoscored.com, he makes an average of 4.2 clearances, 1.2 blocks & 1.1 interceptions per game.
Putting that into context, Juventus legend Leonardo Bonucci makes 2.8 clearances, 0.8 blocks & 1 interception per game.
Bearing in mind Ekong plays for a side that is currently 14th, this is not a stat that should be taken lightly. In November 2019, he was named in one of the Serie A teams of the week after a 1-0 win at Torino.
Standing at 191cm, he’s a towering figure who rarely gets caught napping. One can attribute his defensive style to that of the English centre backs of ’90s, and it comes as no surprise as he had his football education at Tottenham & Fulham’s academies.
Last summer, he was ever present as the Super Eagles took home the Bronze medal at Egypt’s AFCON tournament. With his valuation currently at €4.3 million, he’s a bargain for any club needing an injection of stability in their back line.
3. Joe Aribo (23)
Steven Gerrard has shocked doubters since becoming Rangers manager last summer, knocking out an upstart Braga side and qualifying for the Europa League Round of 16 with a €63 million squad. One of the key reasons behind his side’s form has been the emergence of Joe Aribo, who arrived on a free transfer from Charlton Athletic this summer.
A versatile 23 year old attacking midfielder, Aribo has been one of the key pieces in Gerrard’s 4-2-3-1 system, racking up 8 goals and 1 assist in all competitions. Capable of playing on the base of midfield, or in the “hole” in a 4-4-2 diamond, or on the wings in a 4-3-3 system, his versatility is one reason why he’s been a godsend for Gerrard.
On his Super Eagles debut, he scored a beautifully worked goal against Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine, as Nigeria were held to a 2-2 draw against a team that topped their Euro 2020 qualifying group ahead of Portugal.
To top it off, he bagged his second goal in a friendly against Brazil. Valued at €1.3 million, it’s only a matter of time before he’s making waves at a higher level.
4. Samuel Chukwueze (20)
A product of Villareal’s academy, Chukwueze made a name for himself when he tore through Barcelona at the Camp Nou last season, and mesmerized the Real Madrid defence, twisting & turning Sergio Ramos.
A quick winger who can play on either flank, he’s valued at €31 million, making him the second highest valued Nigerian player right now behind Ndidi.
In 2019, he was named in the 10 man shortlist for the Golden Boy award, scoring 10 goals & providing 2 assists for Villareal in all competitions.
5. Victor Osimhen (21)
Only Robert Lewandowski has scored more match winning goals (8) than Osimhen in Europe’s top five leagues this season (7 goals). The Lille forward broke onto the scene as the top scorer of the 2015 U-17 World Cup with 10 goals, while also winning the CAF Youth POTY that year.
In his first month in France, he was awarded the Player of the Month award after hitting the ground running for Les Dogues. In total, the Nigerian striker has bagged 18 goals in all competitions this term.
An asset in any high-pressing system, it’s no surprise to see the number of clubs that he’s been linked to (recently Manchester United). Osimhen has been a godsend in Lille’s biggest games this season, as the likes of Lyon, Valencia, Monaco, Marseille & Chelsea have bore witness too.
He bagged his first Champions League goal in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea, and has effectively kept ex-Chelsea and Newcastle man Loïc Rémy on the bench.
Since his breakout season in 2018/19 for RSC Charleroi, he’s scored 35 goals and registered 8 assists in France and Belgium. Capable of playing on either side of the flanks, his ball control and ground duels are a work in progress, but rest assured, this is one special player.
6. Cyriel Dessers (25)
When Cyriel Dessers scored his 15th Eredivisie goal as Heracles hosted Ajax in Almelo, the rest of Europe began to take notice.
The Belgian-born Nigerian striker has started 26 of the 26 games that Frank Wormuth’s side have played and has scored 55% of Heracles’ Eredivisie goals this season (18 in all competitions this season & 65 in Dutch football since 2016/17).
A quick, skillful centre forward, Dessers’s main strength is his hold-up play and finishing. His trickery is shown in the number of successful dribbles he has made (55% completed) and his vision, as he’s created seven big chances, assisting his teammates five times.
Numbers do not do justice to how good he’s been, and after playing for five Belgian & Dutch clubs, he’s up for a big move. He recently announced his desire to represent Nigeria on the international stage, a relatively wiser choice.
Going up against Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho is a far less daunting task than going up against Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi, but the fact that Nigeria have the privilege of having each of those three at their disposition speaks volumes about how impressive their striker production rate is. Few national teams are blessed with as many talented center forwards as the Super Eagles.
For a 15 goal in 26 games striker, a €3.2 million valuation is pretty low. Any club in need of a cheap goalscorer would do well to consider Dessers in the next transfer window.
Photo: Gabriel Fraga