Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Ujah doing enough for Nigeria recall?

Four goals in his last five appearances makes the 24-year-old the Bundesliga's form striker; has he done enough to warrant a Super Eagles recall?

After a failed   stint at Mainz and an unpopular time with Nigeria, Anthony Ujah is working hard to rebuild his reputation.

32 goals in 42 games over an 18-month period is monstrous for any forward that is not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo; the caveat being that the feat was achieved in the modest Tippeligaen.

With Lillestrom, the former FC Abuja striker achieved a cult following among the support, and drew interest from Dutch giants PSV among others. Indeed, after his first season, in 2010, yielded 14 goals in 24 appearances, there was concrete interest from La Liga in the form of Real Mallorca.

However, Los Bermellones had filed for bankruptcy only seven months prior and were in no position to provide the financial guarantees Lillestrom needed to sanction the deal. There may have been some disappointment, but Ujah stayed on and fired off 13 in the opening half of the season.

In June 2011, Mainz came calling. This time it was for real.

Mainz at the time were coming off the most successful season in their history under the bold, turbo-charged leadership of Thomas Tuchel. The charismatic 41-year-old had a powerful influence on the young striker.

“I read about several interested clubs but the Mainz coach [Tuchel] gave a positive impression from the very moment I first spoke to him,” Ujah revealed following the completion of the deal.

“I want to develop as a player in Europe and Mainz has the perfect platform for me.”

It may have seemed that way from the outside, but the reality was decidedly bleak at the Coface Arena. He took till November to open his Bundesliga account for his new club, but by then he had only started two games. His reward for that brace which vanquished Stuttgart was a cameo appearance in the last minute of the next game against Bayern Munich.

By the end of the season, it was quite clear that he did not have the confidence of the management. Four starts had yielded two goals, and only once had he completed the full 90. At a crossroads, Ujah was well aware that a decision needed to be made. He could stay where he was not wanted and put up a semblance of a fight, or he could take a step back in order to move forward.

He chose the latter. The setting for his much-needed reboot: sleeping giant FC Koln.

“It’s a big career decision to leave Mainz in the German Bundesliga and go a step down,” he admitted to BBC Sport.
“But I needed the move to get regular football and regain my shattered confidence. This switch to Cologne should help me to get back to my strong mental ability and enjoy football again.

“This is a big opportunity to prove to myself that I can score goals if given a chance.”

He need not have worried, the touch was still there. He scored 13 in 28 as the Billy Goats narrowly missed out on promotion, but it was enough to convince the management to make the deal permanent. Mainz did not stand in his way.

Now back in the big time and proving his worth in the Bundesliga, Ujah has no doubt as to whether leaving Mainz was the right move.

“It’s the best time of my career,” he beamed to the Express at the weekend, after his opener set Koln on their way to a 2-1 win away at Schalke.

It has not all been plain sailing, of course.

He may be a clinical finisher in front of goal, but doubts remain about his work-rate off the ball, offering perhaps the clearest insight into why his first Bundesliga stint was so short-lived. At Tuchel’s Mainz, where energetic pressing from the front was emphasized, Ujah’s tendency to switch off likely hurt his own cause.

It is something the forward acknowledges, and is working on. He was accosted late on in the Schalke game by team-mates Matthias Lehmann and Kevin Vogt and took the criticism in his stride, saying, “They just wanted me to wake up and keep pushing.”

If he needs pepping up from time to time, then it is no surprise that his big chance to impress with the national team did not quite go to plan. In a SuperSport interview, Ujah admitted that his experience at the 2013 Confederations Cup was far from ideal.

The Super Eagles arrived in Brazil on the eve of the opening game against Tahiti, and while they won 6-1, the performance left a lot to be desired. The 24-year-old described it as akin to a “training session”, and was guilty of missing a number of gilt-edged chances, electing to go round the goalkeeper one too many times.

The fans noticed too, and the Nigeria supporters vocalised their loss of faith in the forward.

That mental and physical fatigue, allied to a tendency to lose focus robbed Nigeria of a chance to see what Ujah can do. He never got another chance after that, and in a way it is cruel that upon his return to form, there is no platform to shine again in the immediate future. The African champions will not defend their crown in Equatorial Guinea; had they qualified, Ujah would surely have had something to say about the squad composition.

The forward does still have time on his side, and will have opportunities to impress: Emmanuel Emenike and Ikechukwu Uche are 27 and 30 respectively. If he continues in this vein, he could very well be the Super Eagles’ leading man for many years.
By Solace Chukwu

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