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Why Nigeria needs Ebere Eze

Nigeria need a star.

The Super Eagles did not qualify for a World Cup until 1994, when they reached the last 16 and achieved the same result in France four years later, but have since got past the group stage just once.

They could easily have done so in 2018, when Peter Oghenekaro Etebo and Ahmed Musa starred.

They were slow to engage against a Luka Modric-inspired Croatia side in their opening game and, after a 2-0 win over Iceland, would have gone through with a draw against an anarchical Argentina outfit rebelling against manager Jorge Sampaoli.

Had Gernot Rohr been slightly braver in that Group D curtain-closer and handed his side more freedom to press and counter-attack, they might well have got the result they needed – but instead they invited pressure and went out through Marcos Rojo’s late goal.

Perhaps part of the reason Nigeria defended so deep against Croatia and Argentina, as well as being fearful of the threat posed by Modric and Lionel Messi respectively, was because there were no players who Rohr felt he could trust to dictate play and use the ball effectively.

In fact, the East African side have not had a world renowned technician since Jay-Jay Okocha, who last played internationally in 2006.

Even John Obi Mikel, who looked a skilful talent in his early days, soon became a functional holding midfielder due to the way he was coached and, though he was successful at Chelsea, did not shine in quite the way he could have done.

Problems of the past, though, could be about to change.

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Ebere Eze has emerged as a star at Queens Park Rangers and, due to Nigerian ancestry, he has trained with the team.

The Rs showed great vision to pick up Eze after he was released by Millwall in 2016.

The Lions believed he could not play “The Millwall Way”, which is accepted as being an old-school 4-4-2, high-pressing, aggressive challenges and direct balls into a physical front-man, as well as fierce characters and uncompromising leadership throughout the team.

Eze, Neil Harris and the coaching staff involved in the decision believed, would not fit into Millwall’s formation, style of play or culture, which is why they let him go at 18.

That’s not to say Millwall necessarily made a mistake, because, with a system that did not have any room for a roaming playmaker, they subsequently had a lot of success – now managed by Gary Rowett, Millwall are 14/1 with Betway as of 10th July for a top 6 Championship finish.

It soon became clear, though, that Eze will go in his career well beyond the level of the club that rejected him, with the Greenwich-born midfield thriving at QPR.

After making his debut for the West Londoners in the FA Cup in January 2017, then-manager Ian Holloway sent him out on loan to Wycombe Wanderers, where he had a wonderful stint and scored two delightful goals in particular at Cambridge United.

Holloway recalled Eze in January 2018, where he made an instant impact at Championship level, showing his skill, creativity and vision.

The following season, the 5’8″ midfielder inspired QPR – now led by Steve McClaren – to move within two points of the Play-Offs on Boxing Day, which was a huge achievement for one of the smaller clubs in the division, although his form dropped in the second half of that campaign.

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This season, though, Eze has gone up another level.

In contrast with the culture at Millwall, where he was released, new Rs boss Mark Warburton creates a climate specifically designed to help players like Eze blossom.

Warburton encourages his players to be brave on the ball, to take risks, to make bold forward movement, he likes his full-backs to get forward and his attacking players to combine centrally.

It’s through this culture that not only have QPR scored the joint-fourth most goals in the Championship, but also developed saleable assets like Eze which is crucial to their long-term need to balance books after previous periods of overspending.

Eze has had the best season yet of his career under Warburton, displaying a deft touch and incredible dribbling ability which does not rely on raw pace – he merely glides past opponents – and has scored some sumptuous individual goals.

Plus, while previous Nigerian stars who have had top level ability like Celestine Babayaro have struggled to fulfil their potential due to perceived indiscipline, Eze has a fantastic attitude as well as a willingness to track back and help out his teammates which could be very important to his career progression.

A Premier League move is on the cards: Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham have been reported as potential suitors.

The subsequent step, therefore, will be a move into senior international football.

Eze could yet represent Nigeria, although he has already played for England at Under-21s level.

The Three Lions, though, already have numerous Premier League established players vying to operate in the same positions as Eze.

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Marcus Maddison has had an excellent two years at Leicester, Mason Mount has enjoyed a breakthrough season for Chelsea, Phil Foden is getting lots of gametime at Manchester City and Jack Grealish is a highly creative player too.

All those players could block the pathway for Eze who, though still young at 22, is in the same age group.

Nigeria, by contrast, are lacking quality in advanced midfield areas to compliment solid, energetic grafters like Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi.

If Eze chose to represent Nigeria, he would give the team a different dimension from the counter-attacking plan the team has relied on for many years and would be in a side built around him, which would be fantastic for his individual prospects.

Eze has huge talent and him representing Nigeria would be great for all concerned.