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Osimhen, Aribo return to Nigeria squad for Afcon qualifiers, Ajayi unlucky to miss out

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Why Junior Ajayi deserves to be called up for Nigeria (1:33)

Colin Udoh praises manager Pitso Mosimane and striker Junior Ajayi after Al Ahly reached the CAF CL final. (1:33)

On Thursday, Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr released his list of 24 players for November's Africa Cup of Nations qualifying double-header against Sierra Leone.

Striker Victor Osimhen, who scored freely before the COVID-19 hiatus, is back. So is the rejuvenated Kelechi Iheanacho, who scored in the Europa League for Leicester City just days ago.

And, to the relief of both coach and fans, Rohr has two-thirds of his starting midfield back, with Oghenekaro Etebo and Joseph Aribo recovered from the injury which kept them out of the recent friendlies squad.

Unlike the previous squad, which featured seven debutants, there was only one this time, in FC Lugano goalkeeper Sebastian Osigwe.

But one name was strikingly missing, that of Al Ahly's Junior Ajayi, who may only have a single cap to his name, but has been in fine form for the Egyptian giants this season.

Al Ahly roared into the 2020 CAF Champions League Final on the back of a 5-1 aggregate whitewash of Morocco's Wydad Casablanca, and in large part thanks to their Nigerian forward.

Ajayi did not score in the two-legged deconstruction of last year's finalists, but he did provide an assist for Ali Maaloul's second goal in the first leg, on the road. And in the second leg, his tireless running, energy and hunt for lost causes, kept the Wydad defence continually unsettled.

It is typical of what he does on a regular basis for Egypt's Red Devils, for whom he has contributed two goals in the competition so far.

In the domestic league, he is currently on seven goals from 29 league appearances, making him joint club top scorer with Marwan Mohsen. It shows how much of a bulwark he is that only one other player has made more appearances for the club this season, namely goalkeeper Mohammed El Shenawy on 30 appearances.

Ajayi has demonstrated an ability to excel not just in what is arguably the best league in Africa, but also consistently showing up in games against continental opposition. He is as ruthless when he needs to be in front of goal as he is unselfish when a team mate is better placed.

So it must come as something of a head-scratching puzzle that the 24-year-old forward only has one international appearance, dating back to a friendly match in 2018 and lasting all of two minutes, to his name.

Incidentally, he was handed his debut and those two minutes by Rohr, the man who is now no longer looking his way.

Admittedly, Ajayi is not a prolific goalscorer -- the numbers above are testament. His highest scoring season was 10 goals with CS Sfaxien in 2016 before he moved to Egypt.

But his skillset is exactly the sort that would fit into Rohr's team, especially for a player who is usually deployed as a wide forward rather than a central striker and against African opposition.

Emmanuel Amunike won the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria in 1994 while turning out for Egypt's Zamalek, before heading out to Europe and he is disappointed that Ajayi has not been given a call.

"I believe that Ajayi deserves to be given an opportunity like every other player and then it is up to him to take the opportunity," Amunike told ESPN.

"He has been with Ahly for many years now and he has been doing very well and playing at a high level consistently. I think that looking at what he has done with Ahly club he deserves to be given the opportunity.

"It will now be up to him to make a statement that will convince the technical staff that he has something to add to the team."

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Former Nigeria striker Jonathan Akpoborie, who played his entire career in Germany, was even more emphatic, telling ESPN: "Ajayi deserves the Nigerian shirt.

"Compared to most of the strikers I have seen so far for Nigeria. He scores and can create chances for his fellow players.

"He is fast and he is an all-round striker that scores goals from inside and outside the box. He will be a valuable asset for the Nigerian team."

But Rohr's record with call ups indicate that he is not particularly enamoured of players in Africa. Apart from goalkeepers Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa, both of whom he had little choice about due to a combination of circumstances, players from the continent have barely been given a sniff since the German took over four years ago.

Three of the last four CAF Champions League Finals have featured Nigerians. Stanley Ohawuchi scored for Zamalek in their 3-1 loss to Sundowns in 2016. Junior Lokosa won with Esperance last year, with Michael Babatunde and Gabriel Okechukwu on the other side as losing finalists.

Ajayi himself featured for Ahly in their 2017 loss to Wydad, although he missed the next year's Final with injury.

Barring that lone two-minute Ajayi cameo in 2018, none of those players were called up by Nigeria, although it must be said that Lokosa was invited, while still playing in Nigeria, for a meaningless friendly.

With Ahmed Musa now without a club, and his other wide forwards blowing hot and cold, this should have been the right time for Rohr to look Ajayi's way as the Super Eagles face Sierra Leone.

It is hard to deny that the player has done his part. And his experience with African opposition might have been just what the doctor ordered for these qualifiers.

But even without Ajayi, Rohr's squad is still a strong one. Strong enough to claim six points and qualify for the Afcon with two games to spare.

THE FULL LIST

Goalkeepers: Daniel Akpeyi (Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa); Sebastian Osigwe (FC Lugano, Switzerland); Maduka Okoye (Sparta Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

Defenders: Kenneth Omeruo (CD Leganes, Spain); Leon Balogun (Glasgow Rangers, Scotland); Chidozie Awaziem (FC Boavista, Portugal); William Ekong (Watford FC, England); Olaoluwa Aina (Fulham FC, England); Jamilu Collins (SC Padeborn 07, Germany); Oluwasemilogo Ajayi (West Bromwich Albion, England); Zaidu Sanusi (FC Porto, Portugal); Kevin Akpoguma (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, Germany)

Midfielders: Oghenekaro Etebo (Galatasaray, Turkey); Tyronne Ebuehi (FC Twente, Netherlands); Frank Onyeka (FC Midtjylland, Denmark); Joseph Ayodele-Aribo (Glasgow Rangers, Scotland)

Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Unattached); Alex Iwobi (Everton FC, England); Emmanuel Dennis Bonaventure (Club Brugge, Belgium); Moses Simon (FC Nantes, France); Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal FC, Spain); Victor Osimhen (Napoli FC, Italy); Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England); Chidera Ejuke (CSKA Moscow, Russia)

Standby: Francis Uzoho (APOEL Nicosia, Cyprus); Samson Tijani (TSV Hartberg, Austria); Abdullahi Shehu (Omonia Nicosia, Cyprus); Ramon Azeez (Granada CF, Spain); Kelechi Nwakali (SD Huesca, Spain); Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Heartland FC); Paul Onuachu (KRC Genk, Belgium)