Top Five Nigerian breakout stars of 2017

Ola Aina of Hull City BackpagePix

Several unheralded Nigerian players enjoyed unexpectedly successful years in 2017, both at club and international level.

In this feature, KweséESPN profiles five starlets who have defied expectations over the last 12 months.

Ola Aina has enjoyed a breakthrough 2017 after previously struggling to make a mark at Chelsea.

A willingness to switch his international allegiance from England to Nigeria led to his maiden Super Eagles cap in October.

The full-back has gone on to make three appearances for the West African giants so far, and looks primed for a spot at the World Cup next summer.

At club level, Aina dropped a division to the Championship, joining Hull City on loan, and he has proven to be one of the most consistent performers for the Tigers, thriving in various wide roles on either flank.

The coming year promises to be huge for the 21-year-old, who was shortlisted by KweséESPN as an African star to watch in 2018.

Henry Onyekuru has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last 18 months, taking the Jupiler League by storm in his debut campaign and ending it with 22 goals for Eupen.

Despite being linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain, he ultimately opted for Everton, joining the Toffees for £7 million before subsequently being loaned out to Anderlecht.

He'd netted nine goals for the Belgian giants - despite occasionally being employed as a left wing-back - before

His brilliant displays led to a bidding war among Europe's leading clubs, with reports indicating he underwent a medical at Paris Saint-Germain before signing for Everton for a fee of £7million.

Onyekuru also made his Nigeria debut, but injury now leaves his World Cup prospects hanging by a thread.

Samuel Kalu: For close to three decades, Nigerian youngsters have consistently used the Belgium league as a launching pad to greater things.

The previously unknown Samuel Kalu became the latest starlet to walk this familiar path when he moved from Slovak team AS Trencin to Gent in January, joining a club with a huge Nigerian presence.

The exciting winger quickly settled into his new team, scoring a total of seven goals from 32 league appearances in 2017.

Despite receiving a red card in the last league game of the year against Anderlecht, more should be expected from the 20-year-old in the coming year.

Could he capitalise on Onyekuru's injury and muscle his way into the Nigeria squad for the trip to Russia?

Orji Okwonkwo graduated from Bologna's reserves to the first team at the start of the year, and has steadily emerged as a key component during the ongoing Serie A season.

The skilful and energetic forward, who is often deployed on the wings, was a member of the Golden Eaglets' U-17 World Cup-winning class of 2015, where his qualities drew parallels with Victor Obinna.

The attacker has scored three goals from a total of 18 Serie A appearances in 2017, and is tipped to do much bigger things in the years to come.

Francis Uzoho: Deportivo La Coruna continued their longstanding association with African goalkeepers when they signed Uzoho from the Aspire Academy in 2016.

The 19-year-old has made giant strides in his attempt to follow in the footsteps of Jacques Songo'o and Peter Rufai at the Spanish club, making his professional debut in the current season.

The breakthrough year got even better for the talented goalkeeper when he was handed his international debut for Nigeria against Argentina in an international friendly in Krasnodar.

His confident display as the Super Eagles came back from 2-0 down to win 4-2, has prompted speculation that the youngster could even be the Super Eagles' first choice at the World Cup.