Europa League hero Ademola Lookman headlines Nigeria WCQ squad

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UEFA Europa League champion Ademola Lookman headlines the Nigeria squad for the Super Eagles upcoming World Cup qualifiers, along with current African Player of the Year Victor Osimhen.

The Super Eagles will face South Africa and Benin in early June, and this squad signals the attacking intentions of new head coach Finidi George, with the obvious inclusions of Atalanta's Lookman and Napoli's Osimhen.

Finidi's appeal for the NFF, ahead of the other candidates for the job, was his knowledge of the team, derived from having been part of Jose Peseiro's technical staff in the 21-month tenure of the Portuguese manager.

During the March international match window, Finidi followed through with the template from Peseiro's time, suggesting that the more things will change under him, the more they will stay the same.

Midfield finally gets some attention

In the past, under both Gernot Rohr and Peseiro, some of the big complaints at each squad release have been the paper-thin midfield, with as little as four players named on more than one occasion.

Finidi appears to have been listening. He has named six central midfielders, populating that department with some talented bodies. Wilfred Ndidi, Frank Onyeka, Alhassan Yusuf and Raphael Onyedika offer steel in the central areas.

Alex Iwobi and Fisayo Dele-Bashiru provide more subtlety. The coach has hinted at a change in formation to get away from the unusually ultra defensive tactics at the Nations Cup, even though that got the team to the Final.

"Maybe the formation has to change. We played 3-4-3 at the last AFCON. Maybe it is time we switched back to 4-3-3," he said.

What is important here, however, is that the coach clearly feels confident in making the adjustments necessary, at least in personnel changes, while still remaining his own man in how he makes that work for him.

Goalkeeper revolving door remains open

The game of musical chairs between Maduka Okoye and Francis Uzoho continues. The former is in, the latter out. Unlike the exclusion of left back Bruno Onyemaechi which raised brows, although it turns out the defender is injured, there does not appear to be any injury report for Uzoho, who has been in good club form recently.

So it does appear to be a straight swap. Since the AFCON disaster of a performance, Okoye voluntarily excused himself from the team. But his club form has taken an uptick in Serie A, and he appears to have found a new self-confidence.

Barring some injury catastrophe, Stanley Nwabali will keep his place as the starting goalie, while Okoye gets assessed at close range.

Finidi's decision however suggests that he is open to chopping and changing, at least for now, to find the best options available.

Local league gets a look-in... but not by much

George, like many of his contemporaries in the Super Eagles 90s class, boasts of a close relationship with the Nigeria domestic league, where he played for the likes of Calabar Rovers and Enugu Rangers.

Unlike most, however, he chose to coach in the NPFL when many would not do the same, and his successes with Enyimba contributed to his hiring. Sitting on the Enyimba bench provided him with the up close and personal perspective on local league players that flew others before him had.

While he has not flooded the team with domestic league players - not many expected him to, certainly not for decisive World Cup qualifiers - there were expectations that he would pick at least a few more than normal.

That was not to be the case. Like Peseiro and Rohr before him, Finidi has only picked two domestic league players. One of whom is goalkeeper Olorunleke Ojo, a constant fixture in previous selections.

However, the other is where Finidi's domestic league knowledge shines through. Remo Stars' Sadiq Ismail is arguably the best player in the NPFL at the moment. A full back, Ismail has averaged nearly 0.4 assists per game over two seasons.

Prior to his callup, he was on his 12th assist of the season, and marked the good news with another one against Kwara United. It is uncertain if the player would have been picked if Ola Aina was fit and available, but it also speaks to Finidi's domestic league chops that he did not pick a Europe-based player in the Forest man's stead.

Finidi has spoken in the past about switching the team to a more attacking mindset after their defensive bunkering down at AFCON: "With the calibre of players that we have, we cannot play defensive football.

"But I think in football, you must get that balance: when you attack and when you defend. If the players are aware of what you are doing, you attack and defend properly.

"Yes, we had the best defensive record at the AFCON but struggled going forward. We have to get the balance right."

Whether it was the formation, or tactics, or just players not doing what they should, Osimhen struggled to get crosses during AFCON, and that is one of the Remo man's strengths. Ismail might provide the balance for the team that Finidi wants, with those raking balls from just about any range for Osimhen to feed off of.

Nigeria play South Africa at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo June 7 starting from 8pm, and then fly to Abidjan to tackle Benin Republic at the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny on Monday, June 10 starting from 4pm CIV time (5pm Nigeria time).


Goalkeepers: Stanley Nwabali (Chippa United, South Africa); Maduka Okoye (Udinese FC, Italy); Ojo Olorunleke (Enyimba FC)

Defenders: Chidozie Awaziem (Boavista FC, Portugal); Bright Osayi-Samuel (Fenerbahce FC, Turkey); Sadiq Ismael (Remo Stars FC); Oluwasemilogo Ajayi (West Bromwich Albion, England); Calvin Bassey (Fulham FC, England); Benjamin Tanimu (Ihefu SC, Tanzania)

Midfielders: Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England); Raphael Onyedika (Club Brugge, Belgium); Alhassan Yusuf Abdullahi (Royal Antwerp FC, Belgium); Frank Onyeka (Brentford FC, England); Alex Iwobi (Fulham FC, England); Fisayo Dele-Bashiru (Hatayspor, Turkey)

Forwards: Nathan Tella (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany); Victor Osimhen (SSC Napoli, Italy); Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England); Samuel Chukwueze (AC Milan, Italy); Paul Onuachu (Trabzonspor FC, Turkey); Ademola Lookman (Atalanta FC, Italy); Victor Boniface (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany); Terem Moffi (OGC Nice, France)