It seems ages ago when Nigerians did not blink because a regular goalkeeper was injured. That was back during the era that Nigeria's three choices -- Vincent Enyeama, Augustine Ejide, and Dele Aiyenugba -- were all of international standard and each of them could be counted on to do a masterful job. However, that is now ages ago. Today, even the regular goalkeeper -- Francis Uzoho -- does not instill much confidence among Nigerian fans. This is in spite of the fact that Uzoho has clearly improved from his low point recorded during his first few games for Nigeria.
But with Uzoho ruled unavailable (due to injury) for a crucial AFCON qualifier in a few days in South Africa, the question about who replaces him is now critical. There are three goalkeepers invited for the contest -- Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, and Theophilus Afelokhai. In the paragraphs below, we share our views of each of them.
Ezenwa is Nigeria's second choice between the posts going by recent events. He was the man who stood in for Uzoho in a recent international in Monrovia (v Liberia) when Uzoho was unavailable. Ezenwa was third choice after Carl Ikeme exited the team on account of illness back in 2016 but Ezenwa soon rose to first choice after Akpeyi's poor performance. Ezenwa was often spectacular in the 2018 World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon but his poor play thereafter opened the door to Uzoho. Ezenwa has the most appearances (26 apps/conceding 0.46 per game) among the three goalkeepers available for the South African game largely because he is first choice for the home-based national team. On his good day, Ezenwa is a good shot stopper but struggles with crosses and can be rash with last ditch tackles against attackers that break through his defense. More troubling at this point is that he is not first choice at his club where he sits on the bench as No. 3 behind both Afelokhai and Fatau Dauda at Enyimba. His lack of match fitness could cost him the opportunity to start in South Africa if Coach Rohr maintains his outspoken believe that only match fit players should play in important games.
Akpeyi is, perhaps, the most derided Nigerian player in recent memory. His antagonists are, arguably, overboard in their assessments of Akpeyi who continues to be a key player for his club -- Chippa United in South Africa. But Akpeyi's demeanor in goal, his frequent errors, as well as indecisiveness in cutting off crosses give his antagonists fuel for criticism. Worse still, Akpeyi has a statistic that sticks out like a sore thumb for Nigeria. In 10 games, Akpeyi is still to complete a game without conceding at least a goal (1.25 per game). Those are considered telling! He was considered unquestioned Nigeria's No. 2 goalkeeper behind Ikeme from 2015 to 2016. If Akpeyi had held his own end of the bargain after Ikeme fell ill in 2016, Akpeyi would have been Nigeria's No. 1 choice today. But he failed to do so. Now he is battling to keep a No. 3 spot, behind both Uzoho and Ezenwa. However, as fate would have it, he is again dealt with gold coins on the table. At familiar turf in South Africa and with match fitness in his favor, he is possibly the front runner to be between the posts for this upcoming game v South Africa. If Rohr calls his name as starter, would he engrave his name as No. 2 choice going forward? That is on the cards in South Africa.
Afelokhai is no spring chicken. He has been a top local goalkeeper for more than a decade in Nigeria with a famed tenure at Kano Pillars. Though he is yet to make an official appearance for Nigeria, he is still considered one of the best at the local scene and has become the first choice at Enyimba where Ike Ezenwa sits on the bench. His match fitness should be a strength going into the South African game but Akpeyi has match fitness as well. Importantly, coach Rohr has his only principles which he appears to hold onto religiously. One of those principles is his belief that a foreign-based player, more often than not, is better than a Nigerian-based player. This is perhaps one unstated reason why Uzoho, with very few first team appearances at his club, was catapulted to Nigeria's first choice over Ezenwa just before the World Cup. To counter Uzoho's lack of experience, Rohr detailed a goalkeeper coach to prepare Uzoho but did nothing of that sort for the locally-based Ezenwa. The point here is that Afelokhai will be nothing but training fodder in this upcoming match. It will take a miracle for Afelokhai to be between the posts in South Africa. That is as certain as day and night.
Therefore, the real choice here is between Rohr's current No. 2 Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi who has the match fitness advantage that Coach Rohr has often put forward as a principle that he uses in selecting players. Thus, the Gernot Rohr's decision has to be about sticking with his conservative decision to use the next player in rank (Ezenwa) or to give the reins to the guy who is match fit (Akpeyi). What gives? We will see in South Africa.