Mikel returns to Nigeria squad ahead of Africa Cup of Nations

Nigeria's release of their 25-man provisional squad for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations on Tuesday was marked by one notable return, that of skipper John Obi Mikel.

The midfielder, 32, has not suited up for the Super Eagles since June of 2018 when the Nigerians were eliminated by Argentina in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup.

There was some uncertainty about whether he would play for Nigeria again, although coach Gernot Rohr left the door open for the Middlesbrough midfielder to walk through when he decided to answer the knock.

Outside of Mikel's return, Rohr has stayed true to his word of sticking with the squad which punched the ticket to Egypt.

Easy to make space for Mikel

It might come as no surprise that Mikel did not play a single minute of the qualifiers for Nigeria. Two years ago, his injury-enforced absence, along with those of Victor Moses and a few other senior players, saw Rohr roll out youngsters in the opening qualifier at home to South Africa.

The Super Eagles were beaten 2-0, their first ever competitive loss to Bafana Bafana. Stung by that defeat, the Nigerians went on to beat a destructive path through the opposition and qualify with a game to spare.

But even through that, they always looked a different, more formidable force with Mikel in the side. This was especially visible during the World Cup qualifiers that were sandwiched between the Afcon games.

Mikel brings a calm solidity to the side, usually seen when there is adversity to be weathered. His name on the team sheet and presence on the field offers an intimidation factor borne of 85 caps that very few others possess.

It remains to be seen if he still has the legs or lungs to see out 90 minutes after 90 minutes over a three-week period, but his leadership and influence in that Super Eagles side is a welcome boost to their chances off going all the way.

- When is the Africa Cup of Nations?
- Full Africa Cup of Nations fixtures schedule

Rohr sticks with what he knows

Prior to the final, inconsequential, qualifier against Seychelles, the Nigeria coach made it clear he would not be looking out for any fresh names to come into his Afcon squad.

He has kept his word. Al Ahly's Junior Ajayi - on the standby list - is the only one who appears to be from slightly left field, but even he has been called up by the coach in the past.

What this says, as if it was in any doubt, is that the German has a fairly good idea not only of what his final squad will be, but what his starting eleven is for that opening group game against Burundi on June 22.

Rohr can be deceptively verbose, talking a lot without giving too much away, and he will doubtless keep that final squad list close to his chest until the very last minute.

But make no mistake, this roster is pretty much ready to be laminated. 

Iheanacho at big risk of not making the cut

It's tough to see Kelechi Iheanacho in that final 23-man squad at this time, let along in the starting XI.

Two places are up in the air. From the looks of it, one defender and Iheanacho are the decisions that need to be made. Up the pitch, Kele's competition are Victor Osimhen and, to some extent, Paul Onuachu.

The other two have proven themselves with minutes and goals at club level, and also in recent international games. Iheanacho has barely got on the green for Leicester City, let alone scored.

His big chance came against Manchester City when he had a chance to level for his team but he fluffed his lines. It was a big moment for the forward, one that could have all but guaranteed his place in Egypt.

As it is, he will be in a fight for his life to beat out the other two, both in training camp and in the friendlies to come. 

My kingdom for a left back

In addition to the 25-man squad, Rohr also listed six standby players. That list of six offers telling insight into Rohr's view of his squad.

Despite seeing Jamilu Collins usurp Bryan Idowu and solidify his claim on the left back position, Rohr still named Idowu, along with two other left-sided defenders, on his standby list.

Under-20 defenders Ikouwem Utin and Valentine Ozornwafor - who will be at the FIFA U20 World Cup until June 15 - will provide cover for Collins and Ola Aina.

It's an indication of how thin Rohr considers his left-sided options to be that he choose to list fifty percent of his standby players from that area of the pitch.

There will be plenty of divine supplication in the technical room that both first choice players selected for that position stay fit during the buildup and through the tournament.

The Missing...

Notably missing from the lists of 31 are midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, forwards Isaac Success and Taiwo Awoniyi, and defender Tyronne Ebuehi.

All four would have been fine additions to the squad. Both Onazi and Ebuehi have been ruled out through injury, however.

Liverpool loanee Awoniyi, on the other hand, appears to be not quite ready, not to mention that Rohr would want to leave the U23s with at least one decent striker to focus on their Olympic Qualifying campaign after stealing away both Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze.

Success, however, is a different issue. The forward worked hard at the beginning of the season to get himself in shape for Watford and subsequently earned a call up for Nigeria.

But he did not get enough club minutes, and when he did get some did not do anything special with them. Onuachu did, and that has locked Success out. At least for now.

25-man provisional squad:

Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Anorthosis Famagusta, Cyprus); Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Katsina United); Daniel Akpeyi (Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa)

Defenders: Olaoluwa Aina (Torino FC, Italy); Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor FC, Turkey); Chidozie Awaziem (Caykur Rizespor, Turkey); William Ekong (Udinese FC, Italy); Leon Balogun (Brighton & Hove Albion, England); Kenneth Omeruo (CD Leganes, Spain); Jamilu Collins (SC Padeborn 07, Germany); Semi Ajayi (Rotherham United, England)

Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Middlesbrough FC, England); Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England); Oghenekaro Etebo (Stoke City FC, England); John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva, Israel)

Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Al Nassar FC, Saudi Arabia); Victor Osimhen (Royal Charleroi SC, Belgium); Moses Simon (Levante FC, Spain); Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray SK, Turkey); Odion Ighalo (Shanghai Shenhua, China); Alexander Iwobi (Arsenal FC, England); Samuel Kalu (Girondins Bordeaux, France); Paul Onuachu (FC Midtjyland, Denmark); Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England); Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal FC, Spain)

Six on Standby:

Theophilus Afelokhai (Enyimba FC); Bryan Idowu (Lokomotiv Moscow, Russia); Ikouwem Utin (Enyimba FC); Mikel Agu (Vitoria Setubal, Portugal); Junior Ajayi (Al Ahly, Egypt); Valentine Ozornwafor (Enyimba FC)