George Akpayen ,
Tue 5 Feb '13
| © supersport.com
At the start of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Fenerbahce defender, Joseph Yobo was the number one centre-back in the pecking order of Nigeria's squad. Sunshine Stars' Godfrey Oboabona was next in that order after Efe Ambrose had been commissioned to play from the right side of defence.
But Yobo's number one status in defence changed after just one game when the experienced defender, appearing in his sixth Afcon, cupped an ankle injury against Burkina Faso in a 1-1 draw.
In the second match against Zambia's Chipolopolo, Nigeria head coach, Stephen Keshi, handed Chelsea youngster, Kenneth Omeruo, currently on loan to Dutch club, ADO Den Haag, his first Afcon start after making a 14-minute debut against Burkina Faso's Stallions.
And for the first time since 2010, Oboabona and Omeruo find themselves in same team once again.
The first real link-up
Oboabona and Omeruo first became teammates during the 2010/2011 season of the Nigeria Premier League (NPL). Omeruo was snapped up by Sunshine Stars in their building process under former head coach, Gbenga Ogunbote.
At the time, Omeruo had just represented Nigeria at Under-17 level in 2009 and it was always going to be an uphill task breaking into Sunshine Stars' first-team with experienced centre-backs like Onyi Chiemeka, Alaba Osawe, Ado Ali, Promise Onuh and Oboabona, who could play across the defence.
But Ogunbote told supersport.com that Omeruo settled in fine and appeared in a handful of games.
"We signed him straight after his performance at the Under-17 World Cup for Nigeria. He spent a season and a half with us. Yes we had very experienced players in defence but Kenneth (Omeruo) fought well for his place and played in most of our games," Ogunbote, who opted to step down as Sunshine Stars' manager after guiding the team to a semifinal finish at the 2012 Caf Champions League, said.
Why duo's pairing is working
Ogunbote said he knew it was a matter of time before both players become the first-choice in the heart of Nigeria's defence after Omeruo was named in the 23-man squad for the Afcon.
"No disrespect to any other player in that team but when I learnt that Kenneth was named in the squad I knew Keshi had taken a good decision and I knew it was just a matter of time before Godfrey and Kenneth play together in centre-back as they did at Sunshine Stars two, three years ago," Ogunbote remarked.
Top sports journalists, Toyin Ibitoye, who covers the Premier League in the West African nation and has followed Sunshine Stars' rise from the Nigerian top flight to challenging on the continent's biggest club competition, said he is not surprised the Oboabona-Omeruo combination is working out at the Afcon.
"Yes, they played together at Sunshine Stars about three seasons ago and Gbenga Ogunbote was their coach. Unfortunately Omeruo was always in and out (owing to international assignments) as well as going on trials every now and then. But he played some games and played alongside Oboabona," Ibitoye, who presents popular magazine programme, Sports Tonight, on Channels TV, said.
Teammates from Sunshine Stars speak
Two players from the Sunshine Stars squad of 2010/11 season also spoke in respect the Super Eagles' duo.
"Godfrey has always been with us and we know what he can do. Omeruo joined us after the Under-17 World Cup in 2009 and played some matches before joining up with the Under-20 team," said midfielder James Moses, who is still on the books of Sunshine Stars.
"Myself and Godfrey were watching one of Arsenal's matches last year when they played really badly. He then said 'he doesn't understand why (Arsene) Wenger would not buy players' not knowing he will be facing one of their players, Gervinho at the Afcon months later. Football is indeed a spirit."
Abdulrazak Aliyu, also part of the 2010/11 set at Sunshine Stars and now with two-time African champions, Enyimba, said: "I'm surprised that they are now together in the Super Eagles. Not that they're not good enough to be there but I wasn't expecting it to happen too soon. But that's football for you as anything can happen. Omeruo at that time was a good player but right now he has improved so much."
Strengths & weaknesses of the pair
But what are the strengths and weaknesses of both defenders? Ogunbote, who has worked closely with them, offered immediate answers.
"The only strong weakness they have is underrating their opponents and a few times they did that we often lose in such games," Ogunbote disclosed.
"But their strengths outdo their weaknesses. Before I joined Sunshine Stars Godfrey was a defensive midfielder. He is a utility player. During my time at Sunshine Stars, he played in every position in defence and played as a midfielder and an attacker. I want to believe that playing in different positions has mould him into a better footballer and defender especially. And he is also good from set pieces as most of his (league) goals have come from free kicks.
"Kenneth is a player with a big heart like Godfrey. He's young, calm and always ready to learn. He is strong in aerial battles and has a decent pace to complement his ability. For me, he's very intelligent," said Ogunbote.
Oboabona on defensive partnership
The Sunshine Stars' man is happy to link up with Omeruo again this time in the national team set-up. But he is not surprised that they are in Super Eagles' team at the Afcon so soon.
"No I'm not surprised we are playing together again. But I'm happy we are in same together again and we are only ready to do our best for our country whether we are in the first-team for any game or not," Oboabona told supersport.com on Tuesday.
Duo tipped by Fifa for glory
The duo's performance against Cote d'Ivoire is already earning them international plaudits. Fifa published on its website 'New discoveries from the Cup of Nations' on Tuesday and named the two Nigerians among its list of 10 top new performers including Sunday Mba, whose goal ousted the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire.
"Another pair that raised some eyebrows in Keshi’s direction when he included the inexperienced and young defenders in his squad for the finals. But the 22-year-old Oboabona, who plays for Sunshine Stars in the Nigerian league, and Omeruo, a 19-year-old on loan at ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands from Premier League giants Chelsea, have seen plenty of match-time, while captain Joseph Yobo has spent most of his time on the bench," the report on Fifa's website stated.
But Oboabona and Omeruo still have to stay on their toes to put in another top display in Wednesday's semifinal against Mali to help Nigeria reach their first Afcon final since 1994.