With Awoniyi sidelined, are the Super Eagles another Osimhen injury from AFCON disaster?

Victor Osimhen and Taiwo Awoniyi offer the Super Eagles some much-needed physical presence up top (Credit: IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

With Awoniyi sidelined, are the Super Eagles another Osimhen injury from AFCON disaster?

Seye Omidiora 21:45 - 01.12.2023

Despite the surfeit of Jose Peseiro’s centre-forward options, only Victor Osimhen and Taiwo Awoniyi offer a significant degree of physicality many observers reckon is needed to thrive on the continent. Losing the Napoli striker before January would be far from ideal.

For anyone connected to Napoli or Nigeria, it was undoubtedly pleasing to see Victor Osimhen return for the Partenopei last weekend. 

For the Serie A defending champions, they welcome back last season’s Capocannoniere after several weeks out with a hamstring injury. For the Super Eagles supporters, the nation’s top centre-forward returning could be pivotal to anything they achieve at next year’s Africa Cup of Nations

Despite the departure of Rudi Garcia, it would be simplistic to put the Frenchman’s departure down to Osimhen’s absence. Giacomo Raspadori commendably filled in for the Super Eagles superstar as he had done a year before, scoring or assisting in four consecutive games the Nigerian missed before that run ended in Garcia’s final two games — the 1-1 Champions League draw with Union Berlin and a shock 1-0 defeat by Empoli at the Maradona. 

While Raspadori has proven to be a short-term replacement for Osimhen in Naples, the Super Eagles have never found ways to win games consistently without the Napoli striker. They showed promise at the previous continental showpiece in Cameroon, where Moses Simon carried the can in Augustine Eguavoen’s wing-heavy approach. 

However, this ultimately fizzled out, and the three-time African champions were found out when they faced a tactically coherent Tunisia side that limited the Nantes wide attacker. 

Super Eagles
In Victor Osimhen's absence, the Super Eagles relied on Moses Simon at the previous AFCON 2021 (Caption: IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

Nearly two years on, the Super Eagles’ options up top have increased. In normal circumstances, having that much firepower should be a positive for any team looking to succeed. But the mood is glum heading into next year’s finals, an upshot of this team’s limits outside its cadre of match-winning strikers.

That excitement over the centre-forwards dipped slightly when Steve Cooper confirmed fears over Taiwo Awoniyi, who underwent groin surgery for an injury picked up on Nigeria duty in November

The Nottingham Forest striker’s absence theoretically should not weaken the West African nation whose options outside Osimhen include Victor Boniface, Terem Moffi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Sadiq Umar to call upon, while Gift Orban and Nathan Tella could yet gate-crash the squad if further injuries are sustained before the competition’s commencement. 

Nigeria’s centre-forward options offer the necessary goalscoring threat on their day, but Awoniyi and Osimhen provide something missing in the others — physical presence. While Boniface is a 1.9m-tall frontman, he excels with his dribbling ability, ball-carrying and ball-striking. Moffi equally has the height (1.88m) but is unsuited to be a typical target man. Umar is six feet, four inches tall (1.92m), but he is the least likely option to disrupt a defence with his physicality.

Super Eagles
Having lost Taiwo Awoniyi to injury, Victor Osimhen is the only Super Eagles striker who thrives in physical battles (IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

Awoniyi and Osimhen provide the required penalty box threat and do not shy from bodily contact. Depending on where you stand regarding African football, that profile of centre-forward is vital for success on the continent. Losing the Forest striker is already bad enough, but any setback for the Napoli striker would be a disaster for Super Eagles supporters.

Despite his height disadvantage compared to Boniface, Moffi or Umar, the 24-year-old has the greatest leap among the quartet, is a threat running onto through-balls and is inclined to force the issue with his physicality.

The latter is typically a weapon for the former Lille striker, even if it leaves the forward running the risk of serious injuries, underscored by a shoulder injury sustained on Super Eagles duty in November 2020, a head injury for Napoli in February 2021 and a cheekbone fracture against Inter Milan two years back. 

Victor Osimhen
Victor Osimhen suffered a nasty facial injury against Inter Milan in 2021-22.

A two-year gap since that cheekbone injury sustained at San Siro in November 2021 suggests the striker has reined in his penchant for putting his body on the line, but muscle injuries could rear its ugly head. Napoli are not anticipated to rush the striker back to action after his latest hamstring layoff, with Walter Mazzarri easing their top scorer back in with substitute appearances at Atalanta and Real Madrid

With seven games to play for Napoli until the New Year, including a Champions League meeting with Sporting Braga to seal second place and top Serie A encounters with Inter, Juventus and Roma, Super Eagles fans will hope their most influential player stays healthy in the lead-up to next year’s AFCON.

The consensus suggests a tactically limited Nigeria side are not primed for a fourth African title. However, a fit and healthy Osimhen gives the Super Eagles the much-needed physicality to compete with the continent’s robust defenders and the world-class quality to win tight games.

With him, they stand a chance at AFCON. He is their ace in the hole.