The youngster looking to fill Rashidi Yekini's big void

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The youngster's performances at the AYC have drawn comparisons with Nigeria's finest ever striker, but the road is one fraught with many dangers. Can he fulfil his pote...

The Flying Eagles have begun their campaign at the African U20 Championships in Senegal in dominant fashion: two games, two wins, seven goals scored, two conceded. It will come as no surprise to those who have watched this team from their victory in the Fifa U17 World Cup in the UAE two years ago; Manu Garba’s lads know the way to goal.
Central to their fine goalscoring form is centre-forward Taiwo Awoniyi, who has found the net thrice already and terrified defences with his physicality.
Remarkably, going into UAE 2013, the fleet-footed Isaac Success was the team’s first-choice striker. However, injury in the second group game against Sweden opened the door for Awoniyi, and he has not looked back since.
It has been interesting to watch the stylistic progression of the no. 18. Over the two years since introducing himself to the world, he has added such raw power to his game, allied to his pace and movement.

                                                 Little beginnings | Awoniyi at the U17 World Cup
He simultaneously completes the Flying Eagles team and seems out-of-place within its general ethos: he does not have the positional adaptability to function all across the forward line, as Garba’s playing philosophy seems to demand. That said, he adds that final bit of steel that the team needs, a fixed point in a whirling maelstrom of attacking movement.
He is a striker for the penalty box, thriving on playing on the shoulder of the last defender and relishing physical battles. A big lad for his age, he seems to have the instinctive sense of how to use his body to create space for himself; witness his snap-overhead kick in the 3-0 semi-final win over Sweden in UAE 2013.
In many ways, he reminds of one of Nigeria’s greatest ever strikers: the late Rashidi Yekini.
The former Vitoria Setubal striker was a fearsome prospect for defenders and did his best work close to goal. “O Deus Negro” [the Black god] as he was affectionately christened in Portugal, was an amalgam of power, searing pace and cool finishing.
It is easy to draw a comparison based on style. Awoniyi’s opener against hosts Senegal bore all the hallmarks of Yekini in his pomp: bursting onto the chipped through-ball and touching past the onrushing goalkeeper to score. Similarly uncanny in its resemblance to Yekini’s calling card was his finish in the 4-1 win over Congo, flicking the ball over the defender’s head and crashing the ball past the keeper. It was one of the things that set the late Yekini, who is Nigeria’s all-time highest scorer apart, the ability to hit the ball with tremendous force.

                                                   The Goals Father | Have we finally found a rightful heir?
The youngster was unsurprisingly level-headed in an interview with thenff.com, saying “I’m still a very young player… I believe [the comparison] is just praise, giving me the courage to work hard and get to [Yekini’s level].”
Awoniyi is showing the full range of his repertoire, and while it is often lazy to label a player ‘the new so-and-so’, the greats are not a bad model to follow. There are divergences too, Awoniyi is a lot more mobile already in terms of working the channels, and does more defensively without the ball; the Kalmar striker is very much his own man, not merely a reincarnation of the past.
He is instead offering a foreshadowing of the future, and it is interesting to see if the progression continues. There are myriad tales of talent fallen by the wayside, blossoming in cadet competitions but failing to make the step up to the big-time.
The Flying Eagles have already secured a place at the U20 World Cup later in the year, and there will be no shortage of suitors for the hulking striker if, as expected, Nigeria make a deep run in the tournament. With the number of top-class strikers dwindling by the day, there is a high demand for them in the European football market, but the 17-year-old must choose wisely or face the descent into obscurity that has bedevilled so many young African strikers in recent times.
The unfortunate example of Dominic Adiyiah springs to mind: after showing so much promise at U20 level for Ghana as they claimed the world title in 2009, the striker sealed a move to Italian giants AC Milan. However, at the time, the Serie A club were at the beginning of the harrowing cycle that has seen them slump to the depths of 11th place in Serie A. Besides, their recent record with youth prodigies was hardly cheery, a case in point being Alexandre Pato (with the caveat of a chequered injury history). Yet it was to San Siro that Adiyiah went; he currently turns out for Nakhon Ratchasima in the Thai Premier League.
The same story goes for the likes of Ransford Osei, Macauley Chrisantus and Emmanuel Sarki, to name a few.
If Awoniyi is to escape this pitfall and live up to the Yekini comparisons, the decisions he makes within the next year will be absolutely crucial. Still, a place in Nigerian football’s pantheon beckons.



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