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Lobi Stars begin continental campaign with loss

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Kenneth Omeruo comes full circle

Barring a late medical turnaround that would see Leon Balogun pass a fitness test, it is almost certain that Kenneth Omeruo will start in central defence for Nigeria against Croatia on Saturday, alongside William Troost-Ekong.

That would be a remarkable comeback story for the 24-year-old, who has endured a topsy-turvy international career since making his breakthrough as a cadet in 2009.

Omeruo, along with 2018 World Cup teammate Ogenyi Onazi, were some of the standout talents from the Nigeria Under-17 team which reached the World Cup Final on home soil in 2009.

Even though they lost that final, Omeruo was tipped to become a senior team stalwart almost immediately and it didn't take long for him to reach that pedestal.

Tw years later, and with months of helping Nigeria to the Under-20 World Cup quarterfinals in 2011, the 19-year-old Omeruo made his senior bow against Cape Verde.

Before long, he formed a formidable partnership with Godfrey Oboabona at the heart of the Nigeria defense, continuously being selected ahead of veteran Joseph Yobo as the Super Eagles stunned even themselves to win the 2013 African Nations Cup.

Only an inopportune injury to Oboabona broke up that partnership at the 2014 World Cup, allowing Yobo back in. But within the space of one year, Omeruo had played and won the African Nations Cup, played at the FIFA Confederations Cup and at the FIFA World Cup, all at just 20 years of age. The world looked nothing if not his oyster.

Until it wasn't.

A disastrous 2015 African Nations Cup qualifying campaign ended with the Super Eagles failing to qualify, a 2-2 draw at home against South Africa putting the final nail on their coffin. Omeruo endured one of the worst games of his career as he helped gift Bafana Bafana two goals.

But the defender's talent and ability was to be both his blessing and his curse.

Despite the fact that Omeruo was just recovering from a bout of malaria, the late Stephen Keshi - seeing his squad decimated by injuries - had no option but to throw the recovering defender into the fray alongside Azubike Egwuekwe. It proved to be a monumental failure of judgement.

That game marked the beginning of the player's decline. His confidence looked shot, and although he kept his place as a national team starter, doubts began to creep in among fans.

When his mistake allowed the aging Collins Mbesuma to score against Nigeria in the opening game of these World Cup qualifiers, those doubts increased despite the Eagles bagging a valuable 2-1 road win.

He quickly plunged down the pecking order, to the point where Gernot Rohr decided to trust a young and inexperienced Chidozie Awaziem over Omeruo, who had over half a century of caps going in, against South Africa in another Nations Cup qualifier.

It marked the depth of Omeruo's international career, but worse was to come when Rohr first put him on standby, then let him out of the squad altogether at one point during qualifiers.

It looked for everything like Omeruo's international career was coming to an end. But the youngster is nothing if not a fighter, and fight he did.

This past season, after yet another loan move from his parent club Chelsea, this time to Kasimpasa in Turkey, he played more games and chalked up more minutes than at any other time in his career.

Rohr did not fail to take notice, and Omeruo earned himself consistent call-ups to the Nigeria squad. But between Troost-Ekong and Balogun, they had annexed the centreback partnership, forming what has now come to be known affectionately by Nigerian fans as the "Oyibo Wall".

The former cadet has been forced to work his way back up the ladder, and how he has.

Substitute performances in friendly games have shown not just his remarkable improvement, but a new confidence and determination to get back to the top, either as a two-man centreback pairing, or as the third of a back three.

His pace remains a useful asset, but his new composure and intelligent tackling have also played a part.

There will be groans and moans from fans and media to see his name on the start sheet if Balogun fails to make it.

But if he does get to start against Croatia, this will be Omeruo's chance - perhaps his last - to prove that cometh the hour, cometh the man. That he has matured into the defender everyone hoped he would be.

And that when the heat comes, he has skin thick enough to stay on the kitchen.


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