Competition among Nigeria’s offensive talents is intense as we fast approach the 2018 World Cup, with the Super Eagles in the driving seat to claim one of Africa’s five spots in Russia.
Gernot Rohr’s New Era at the helm of the continental giants has seen the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Moses Simon and Alex Iwobi flourish, while Ahmed Musa remains a tantalising option despite his domestic struggles.
Odion Ighalo and Victor Moses reaffirmed their importance with sterling showings in the double-header against Cameroon, and the likes of Anthony Nwakaeme, Henry Onyekuru, Aaron Samuel, Olarenwaju Kayode, Isaac Success and Victor Osimhen are among the tantalising options on the fringes of the squad.
However, despite their myriad qualities, do any of the aforementioned names offer the guile in advanced areas that Sone Aluko can?
The Reading forward, whose team host Norwich City live on Kwesé Sports 1 on Saturday at 18:30 CAT, has endured a frustrating international career.
He’s been largely discarded since the dismal 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign, even though he was one of the Eagles’ star men under Stephen Keshi and twice found the net in an ultimately decisive draw with South Africa.
Following that failure, he ought to have been one of the building blocks for the new Nigeria, rather than a sub-par element discarded with some of the other underachievers.
He may have struggled in the Premier League, where he appeared at times to be overwhelmed by the division’s intensity, but he’s consistently proven his quality in the Championship, with Fulham in recent seasons, and latterly with Reading.
Indeed, while Musa netted just twice last season – his miserable maiden campaign in England – Aluko was busy inspiring Fulham to an unexpected promotion charge.
He scored eight and contributed 10 assists during 47 outings, before the Cottagers were defeated in the playoffs.
That form attracted the interest of Reading, Fulham’s vanquishers in the playoff semi finals before they were themselves bested by Huddersfield Town in the final.
Aluko was attracted by Jaap Stam’s ambition to take the Royals back into the Premier League, and while they’ve started the campaign sluggishly – winning just two of their nine fixtures to date – the Nigeria forward has begun to demonstrate why his arrival should prompt an upturn in fortunes.
The 28-year-old has contributed two assists in his last two fixtures – and has begun to show the trickery, the technique and the flair that set him apart from many of the division’s other attackers.
Aluko is never going to be a prolific frontman, but as he demonstrated with Fulham last season – playing alongside Floyd Ayite, Neeskens Kebano and Chris Martin – he knows how to get the best out of those around him.
His ability to beat a man and stretch the play should, in time, create more space and opportunity for Reading’s forwards, while Aluko can also thrive in a wide role or through the middle.
The former Glasgow Rangers man is also hard working and weighs in defensively, which would allow some of the Eagles’ other attacking talents more breadth to express themselves.
This kind of discipline and tactical nous could also be vital against some of the tougher opponents Nigeria will face should they make it to Russia. This versatility should certainly appeal to Rohr – particularly in a tournament environment – but it’s Aluko’s intelligence and his ability to act as a foil for those around him which make him worthy of ardent consideration from the German coach.
It’s particularly tantalising to imagine how Aluko would work in tandem with Iheanacho, as he’s often done some of his best work as a withdrawn striker playing behind a more conventional leading man.
Assuming that John Obi Mikel takes the central creative control for the Eagles though – as he did in both games against Cameroon – Aluko could revert to the wide role he played as part of Fulham’s front three last season.
He’s a player who offers assists, versatility and work rate, and if he can recreate last season’s output at Reading, deserves consideration in Rohr’s masterplan.