Super Falcons number 9: Is Mexico-based Chinwendu Ihezuo ready to take over from African great Asisat Oshoala?

Nigeria, on Friday, delivered a disciplined display to claim an impressive 1-0 victory over South Africa in the first leg of the fourth and final qualifier for the Paris 2024 Olympics, reports.

Head coach Randy Waldrum threw a couple of surprises in his starting lineup for the encounter, starting midfielder Christy Ucheibe in the heart of the defence and Chinwendu Ihezuo in the centre-forward role.

Both girls gave an excellent account of themselves, with Ucheibe helping the team keep a clean sheet while Ihezuo won the penalty that captain Rasheedat Ajibade slammed home for the slim win.

Ihezuo was particularly outstanding as the 26-year-old striker caused all manners of trouble for the South Africans.

What made Ihezuo’s performance even more pleasing was that she was a surprise inclusion in the 22-woman squad that Waldrum invited for the double-legged tie against South Africa.

A brilliant prospect, after making a significant impact for the U17 and U20 national teams, Ihezuo had been involved with the senior team since 2015 when she participated at the All African Games in Congo.

She was a member of the Super Falcons squad for the 2018 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations and appeared as a substitute in the final as Nigeria overcame South Africa to claim the title.

However, Ihezuo, the silver boot winner at the 2012 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup, dropped out of the national team reckoning after moving to China in 2019 and missing the entire 2020 season due to the COVID pandemic.

Thankfully, the former Delta Queens FC star bounced back to reckoning after deciding to leave China and go to Mexico in 2023 to sign for CF Monterrey Femenil.

Ihezuo delivered key performances and scored crucial goals to help Monterrey finish second in the Mexico Liga MX’s regular season.

The club advanced to the Liguilla, the Championship round, only to end the campaign in the semifinal following an aggregate loss to CF Pachuca Femenil. Pachuca reportedly signed her from Monterrey at the end of the campaign.

Clearly, Waldrum was monitoring her development despite leaving her out of the squad for the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year.

Still, when the American gaffer included her in the squad for the Olympic qualifier, not many could have predicted that she would make the starting lineup versus South Africa.

With Rinsola Babajide, Ifeoma Onumonu, Esther Okoronkwo, and Asisat Oshoala named on the bench, Ihezuo started as the team’s centre-forward and excelled.

She hassled South African defenders, won nearly all her aerial battles, pressured her opponents endlessly, and chased every ball aimed forward.

After the clash, Waldrum singled Ihezuo out for praise, maintaining she was the game’s most outstanding performer.

“(Ihezuo was) fantastic, for me probably the player of the match,” Waldrum said.

“I thought she was fantastic up front; her hold-up play was brilliant.

“She tracked every ball down whether she had a chance to get it or not. Almost every ball she put the defence under duress and that’s what you want out of a striker – a player that will put that kind of work in.

“She was outstanding; we knew she would do well. I have been following her in Mexico; if you guys have followed her there, she’s been playing very well this season.

“Maybe they (South Africa) were not quite prepared for her; she was great, fantastic.”

Despite Ihezuo’s brilliance, Oshoala remains the Super Falcons’ first-choice striker and Waldrum’s number-one centre-forward.

Oshoala has earned her place, helping Nigeria win the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations and scoring at last year’s World Cup, where the Super Falcons reached the knockout round.

While Oshoala is still Nigeria’s most accomplished attacker, her contribution in recent times has come under criticism.

Oshoala is still a huge fan favourite, but the former Barcelona star is no longer as hungry and hard-working as she used to be for the Super Falcons.

One of the reasons she was completely left out of the game against South Africa was because of her late arrival to camp.

Oshoala landed in Abuja on Thursday, a day before matchday, after travelling for several hours from her base in the United States.

These will likely happen more often in the coming months as she makes long-distance trips to honour international assignments.

And it could force her to consider international retirement predictably after the 2024 WAFCON.

Whenever Oshoala calls time on her Super Falcons career, Ihezuo will be one of the leading contenders to take over the team’s iconic number-nine jersey.

And on the strength of Ihezuo’s display against the Banyana Banyana, the Super Falcons attack will not decline in quality when Oshoala exits the scene.

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