Roberto Mancini’s second coming at Internazionale was remedied by a daisy-cutter from the edge of the box in the Derby della Madonnina on Saturday. Wheeling away was the stocky frame of midfielder Joel Obi, not since 2005 has a Nigerian regaled San Siro with celebratory acrobatics. Fittingly, just like Obafemi Martins before him, Obi has found himself linked to Premier League side Newcastle United in recent times.
Obi is a player that is hard to judge. Absence makes the heart grow
fonder, and in many ways, his abilities seem lionized as a result of his
So, where does fact touch down and myth take off?
To simplify, he is the Nigerian version of a player like Jack
Wilshere: blessed with talent that can define a generation but
perpetually injured. Away from the realm of intangibles, there are many
similarities to their styles as well.
He showed up on Nigeria’s radar in 2011, then just 20, following an
abject campaign at the World Cup in South Africa by the Super Eagles.
Erstwhile coach Samson Siasia was keen to incorporate young Nigerian
players playing abroad, a policy which also saw him woo former Arsenal
youth player Chuks Aneke.
He had only made his league bow with Inter four months earlier, but
no one was raising eyebrows when he started the next 11 games; so
seamless was his adaptation to international football. Ultimately, his
run with the Super Eagles was cut short by injury in 2012, he would not
start another game for team till 2014.
In his absence, the national team became African champions and his
place in midfield was taken over by Ogenyi Onazi. They are entirely
contrasting players; the team had to adjust its dynamics for Obi’s
absence. That said, the Lazio man performed admirably alongside John Obi
Mikel as a defensive screen, offering the sort of security that the
pairing of the two Obis could not in failing to qualify for Afcon 2012.
Obi | The Nigerian Wilshere
That team coached by Siasia was brilliant going forward, but lacked
the cornerstone of previous sides under the leadership of the former
Nantes player. He ideally prefers to work with two disciplined players
acting as a screen, and a No.10 who functions as a second striker. Mikel
and Obi in tandem went in the complete opposite direction, the result
of the falling away of Ebenezer Ajilore and Sani Kaita.
That failure may forever taint the potential of such a partnership,
but there is no reason they could not work together in a three-man
midfield. Of course this depends greatly on who takes charge of the
Super Eagles going forward. Aside a player’s potential and application,
there is also the question of the coach(ing) getting the best out of
In that sense, the sacking of Walter Mazzarri may prove a blessing.
The former Napoli boss’s insistence on playing Obi as a wing-back was
not a stretch: the 23-year-old is energetic, quick in transitions and a
fine dribbler. It is however unlikely it would have gotten the best out
of him, a fact the midfielder acknowledged following the derby draw, in
which Mancini played a 4-3-3.
“We have more options playing with this formation and more
alternatives for us midfielders,” he told the club’s official website.
Now more than ever is the time for the precocious Obi to stake a
claim to a place in the team under new management. His well-taken goal
has got his foot in the doorway, and if he conquers his injury demons,
could see him push on like he has failed to since Rafa Benitez handed
him his debut in 2010. This can only be good news for the Super Eagles.
In terms of attributes, Obi is rather unique in his ability to change
and dictate the tempo of the team in midfield.
His final ball in the attacking third could do with work, and this
might ultimately prevent him from being the true heir to Jay-Jay Okocha
that many have long sought and heralded. He is a far more disciplined
player though, unlike the mesmeric No.10 whose anarchic tendencies
prevented him from playing at an elite club.
Can Joel still be the Heir to Okocha?
His return to the Super Eagles against Scotland in May flattered to
deceive ultimately. He was clearly unfit and bound to lose his race to
be fit for the World Cup in Brazil. Still, Stephen Keshi’s unwillingness
to discount him without first-hand assessment was telling: it is not a
courtesy the Big Boss has been quick to extend during his reign.
“When I first took over (as Nigeria coach), Joel Obi was one of the
players I wanted to build the team around,” Keshi told SuperSport in
With the midfielder fit again and the national team in need of rebuilding, Keshi may finally get the chance.