Uzoho absence reopens door to Ezenwa, Akpeyi vs. Bafana

Ikechukwu Ezenwa of Nigeria Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

Nigeria find themselves in a goalkeeping pickle as they prepare to face South Africa in what is shaping up to be one of the biggest grudge matches of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying series.

It's an unfortunately familiar state of affairs.

Just before the first game of the campaign, the Super Eagles were hit with news of the enforced retirement of goalkeeper Carl Ikeme following his leukaemia diagnosis.

South Africa-based Daniel Akpeyi was called up and leapfrogged Ikechukwu Ezenwa for the first game of the post-Ikeme era against Algeria, acquitting himself well.

However, that solution didn't last long.

Akpeyi looked nervy and indecisive as South Africa ran out 2-0 winners in the next game in Uyo, and appears to have lose the faith of coach Gernot Rohr in the process.

Ezenwa was handed the reins for the rest of the World Cup qualifiers, and while he proved competent, neither Rohr nor the fans were convinced that he was the present, let alone the future.

Distrustful of both Ezenwa and Akpeyi, Rohr began to groom then 19-year-old Francis Uzoho for the position, including sending his goalkeeper trainer to work with the youngster in Spain's lower division.

Uzoho went on to become the Eagles' number one, playing every game since coming on as second-half substitute in a 4-2 friendly win over Argentina in Krasnodar in November.

Now, news of Uzoho's injury in a league game on Sunday, an injury which is expected to keep him out of action for four weeks, has once again thrown the goalkeeping situation into confusion - as Ikeme's absence did previously.

Again, the Super Eagles face Bafana Bafana in a game which has significance beyond the one point that Nigeria need to secure qualification, and as before, the leading options to fill the void are Ezenwa and Akpeyi.

At the moment, Ezenwa is first in line to step in, just as he did during the World Cup qualifiers, but that's by no means certain, as Akpeyi continues to mount a challenge.

Rohr has also told KweséESPN he will call up a third, replacement goalkeeper.

For Ezenwa, this presents another, perhaps final opportunity to show that he is more than just a body for target practice in training.

It is almost fair to say that the Enyimba stopper has nailed down the number two position, the perennial backup within the Super Eagles squad.

Those twin and unexpected retirements of Enyeama and Ikeme took Nigeria's goalkeeping position from being the strongest in the team to one of its more uncertain areas.

As third-choice behind Enyeama and Ikeme, not many expected Ezenwa to make it all the way to number one, and the general feeling was of him being the token concession to the domestic league.

All that changed with news of Ikeme's diagnosis and sudden retirement, as Ezenwa was promoted to second then first-choice.

He might have been relegated back again had it not been for Akpeyi's jittery showing against South Africa. In fairness to Ezenwa, he did a competent job in the four games in which he kept goal, although his error in giving away a needless penalty to Cameroon in Yaounde did him no favours.

Under ordinary circumstances, he would naturally have been expected to be a shoo-in for the position, but his lack of action at club level is a big drawback.

Ezenwa has lost his position at Enyimba to Theophilus Afelokhai and has only played one domestic game in over five months, an Aiteo Cup semi-final loss to Kano Pillars.

That opportunity only came due to an injury to Afelokhai.

He appeared nervy after coming off the bench for his injured teammate in the first leg of the CAF Confederation Cup semi-final first leg, and didn't even make the bench for the return fixture.

This means that Akpeyi, a regular fixture for Chippa United in South Africa's PSL, may just nose in front. If he is picked, Akpeyi would need to overcome any residual nerves and lack of confidence both from that earlier fixture against Bafana, and from his hideous error against Argentina last November.

Neither goalkeeper inspires confidence among the fans, but Rohr's decision to give Uzoho all the pre-world Cup playing time with little for his back-ups could now come back to haunt him.

Barring any further injuries on that front, Nigeria's training camp in Asaba will be bruising battle for the goalkeeping spot.