Onazi’s shock inclusion, blessing for Eagles

By Punch
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Lazio youngster, Ogenyi Onazi, was handed his first Super Eagles invitation for the October 13 Nations Cup qualifier against Liberia. Analysts say the 19-year-old will bring more competition to the team, writes 'TANA AIYEJINA

Who is this Onazi,” queried a friend on phone immediately coach Stephen Keshi released his initial list of players for the crucial Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Liberia's Lone Star in Calabar on October 13.

Ogenyi Onazi's inclusion in the list came as a shocker to other football followers in Nigeria, who most probably never heard the name before, but the youngster has been the rave of the moment at the Stadio Olimpico, home ground of Italian giants SS Lazio, since the beginning of the season.

Still unheralded at home, Onazi's pre-season form for Lazio paved the way for his breakthrough into Lazio's first team when the season began proper.

He was used in both central midfield and right midfield areas where he played against Torino, Siena, Montebelluna and Top 11 Calcio Club 103 in Lazio's pre-season matches.

Last season, the 19-year-old midfielder made his debut for the Biancocelesti, coming on as a late replacement for Senad Lulic as Lazio won 2-0 at Atalanta.

This season, he has played five times for Lazio, thrice in the Europa Cup and twice in the league, warming his way into manager Vladimir Petkovic's heart. And his best is yet to come.

“If he (Onazi) keeps up this form, you will see him in big games,” Petkovic said.

Lazio's central defender, Giuseppe Biava, said, “He has personality and good game viewing. He's young and has to learn, but I think he will be useful for us this season. Onazi will become important for the future of Lazio.”

The player is strong, has a commanding influence in midfield and versatile, thus drawing comparisons with Nigerian great, Sunday Oliseh. Can he step into the former Juventus man's boots in the national team?

But football followers say it is too early to compare him with the former Nigeria captain and Atlanta '96 Olympic Games gold medalist.

Former Nigeria centre-back, Taribo West, has followed the player's steady progress but he believes the youngster should be allowed to blossom at his own pace rather than compare him with a player like Oliseh.

“A young and up-and-coming player like Onazi doesn't need this kind of comparison because it will put too much pressure on him, which he doesn't need now,” Taribo said.

“The comparison won't do his game any good because his concentration will be on equaling Oliseh's feat. He is Onazi and he should be himself.

“When Taye Taiwo went to AC Milan, they said he would replace (Paolo) Maldini but we all know where he ended up. Pressure is not good for players.”

But Taribo, who spent three seasons in Italy between 1997 and 2000 playing for Inter Milan and AC Milan, insists that Onazi's inclusion in the team will make competition for places in the midfield fiercer.

He said, “I am happy for Onazi's inclusion in the team because he will give Mikel Obi, Joel Obi and the other midfielders a good fight for a place.

“He is a very skillful player, doesn't lose the ball easily, can also win the ball and has fresh legs. If he brings all these qualities into the team, he will be unstoppable. He is versatile but I believe he should be given a defensive midfield role.”

Sports journalist, Samm Audu, believes the player's versatility is an asset to Keshi's team but insists that the coach has the exclusive right to use the former Golden Eaglets and Flying Eagles player in the position he wants.

Audu said, “Onazi is a good player who has gone through the ranks playing for Nigeria from the Golden Eaglets to the Flying Eagles and now the senior team.

“I wouldn't want to be drawn into his comparison with Oliseh but in Italy he plays more of an attacking role. He plays in defensive midfield too and at a time the coach was even thinking of playing him at right-back.

“So he is versatile but on where he should play in the national team? It depends on the coach and what pattern or tactics he decides to adopt. He will bring in quality wherever he is played.”

A football fan, John Adewale, also believes that Onazi's arrival in the Eagles will spark fear into players who play in same position.

“Now the so-called big boys know that there is a new player playing in a big league who is ready to contest for a place with them.”

Onazi's rise to global prominence has been remarkable. He started out at My People FC, an academy set up by the founder of The Synagogue Church of All Nations, Pastor T.B. Joshua, to help less-privilege youths.

While honing his skills at the academy's pitches close to the church, Onazi along with another product of My People, Emmanuel Sani, caught the eye of the then Golden Eaglets coach, John Obuh, three years ago.

Both players made the final cut for the U-17 World Cup on home soil as the Eaglets emerged runners-up after losing the final to Switzerland in Abuja.

But while Onazi only played a fringe role in the tournament after he copped an injury in the first match against Germany, Sani hugged the headlines, winning the Golden Ball and Silver Boot and being crowned the MVP of the tournament.

After the tournament, both players, supported financially by Joshua, went on trials at clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspurs, Panathanaikos and Young Boys.

However, it was Lazio that the duo eventually settled for, joining the youth team and making an instant impact with Lazio's Primavera team, which ended up as runners-up in the junior league.

An amazing rise indeed for Onazi. But bearing in mind that players like Rabiu Ibrahim, once touted to step into Austin Okocha's boots, has been struggling to realise his potential, will Onazi bring the required quality to the Eagles soon?

Surely, only time will tell.

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