The former Golden Eaglets hero has only managed three goals in three years for the senior national team, but he could be the key to a fourth continental triumph
The Super Eagles began their quest for a fourth Africa Cup of Nations triumph with a massively impressive victory over Egypt at the Roumde Adjia Stadium, Garoua, on Tuesday.
There were excellent performances all over the pitch for the Nigerians, who brushed aside the Mohamed Salah-skippered Pharaohs with unexpected ease.
Nantes’ Moses Simon and Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho set up a mini-debate on who should have won the man-of-the-match award CAF handed to the Premier League-based forward.
Rangers’ Joe Aribo and Wilfred Ndidi complemented each other beautifully in midfield, while Kenneth Omeruo and goalkeeper Maduka Okoye were crucial to the Eagles keeping a clean sheet.
One player who had a curiously subdued display was Villarreal hotshot Samuel Chukwueze.
Chukwueze is one of the Super Eagles’ most in-form forwards, but he lasted only 72 minutes against the Pharaohs before CSKA Moscow man Chidera Ejuke replaced him.
A man hot on form
After returning from a five-month injury layoff, Chukwueze had seemingly picked up his best form from where he left off as he impressed for Villarreal.
Chukwueze scored when facing Barcelona, hit the target again against Real Sociedad in December, and claimed an assist in Villarreal’s 5-0 thrashing of Levante on January 4 before joining the Eagles.
Add that to the two other goals he bagged in the Copa Del Rey against Victoria CF and Sanluqueño, and you get the picture of a winger who is thriving in front of goal at the moment.
The story is the same in the Super Eagles
Injuries stopped Chukwueze from featuring for the Eagles in 2021, but before then, he was bettered only by a few.
The 22-year-old got two goals in his last two competitive appearances for Nigeria, scoring against Sierra Leone and Lesotho during the qualifiers for this tournament.
When he finds his groove in Cameroon, Chukwueze could be unstoppable.
His tournament record is impressive
Chukwueze always thrives at the biggest championships.
The youngster was an unknown quantity on the local scene before making the Golden Eaglets’ squad that won the 2015 Under-17 World Cup in Chile.
Victor Osimhen was the undoubted star of that tournament, but Chukwueze more than caught the eye with his three goals, three assists, and countless dribbles.
And his performances were rewarded with the competition’s Bronze Boot and a move to Villarreal when he turned 18.
Initially registered with the club’s reserves, it did not take long for Chukwueze’s quality to shine through, and he was quickly promoted to the first team.
Eight goals, including five in La Liga, in his maiden campaign with the seniors, made him one of the most promising youngsters in Spain.
His international debut followed in 2018, and it was not surprising to see the Nigeria Football Federation’s 2018 Young Player of the Year make the Nigeria squad to the 2019 Afcon in Egypt.
Chukwueze’s highlight at that tournament was his man-of-the-match display in the quarter-final against South Africa.
He got his first Eagles goal that night – the opener in a 2-1 victory – in Cairo and has been a consistent figure in the Super Eagles starting eleven since.
More to come at Afcon 2021
With 22 Villarreal goals, 18 assists, 136 games, and the Europa League trophy in his kitty, Chukwueze arrived in Cameroon better equipped than in Egypt.
One of the most naturally gifted attackers available for coach Augustine Eguavoen, Chukwueze, will add magic and guile to an attack that misses the services of Napoli striker Victor Osimhen.
One prominent feature of Eguavoen’s Eagles is the absence of total reliance on one individual star in the mould of Egypt’s Mo Salah. Iheanacho came up with the goods against the Pharaohs.
Any of Taiwo Awoniyi, Chidera Ejuke, Alex Iwobi, Umar Sadiq, or Aribo has the quality to lead the Eagles to victory in subsequent matches. But none more than Chukwueze.
And like Emmanuel Amunike in 1994 and Victor Moses in 2013, Chukwueze could be the game-changer as the Super Eagles aim to rule the continent a fourth time.