Paul Onuachu: The Rejected Stone

While the Psalmist had someone else in mind when he wrote of the stone which the builders rejected that later became the cornerstone, the statement aptly describes Paul Onuachu’s situation at the end of the pulsating encounter in Porto Novo on Saturday.

The Genk forward headed home a late, late winner for the Super Eagles in their Afcon-qualifying clash against Benin to bring an ironic conclusion to a raging seven-day debate.

Head coach Gernot Rohr started the rumblings when he ignored the prolific goalscorer on the 24-man list he prepared for Nigeria’s last two Group L matches.

It was a surprise for many who had watched the towering forward dominate the headlines in Belgium almost weekly, scoring goals for fun and catching the attention of several clubs across Europe.

Still, Rohr was far from impressed, and the German even preferred to invite others when replacing players whose club stopped from travelling to Nigeria for the qualifiers.

At long last, Rohr swallowed his pride and called up the 26-year-old to take the place of Moses Simon, who had been held back by French club Nantes.

In supporting Rohr’s decision to snub Onuachu, some fans pointed at the former Midtjylland ace’s poor returns when wearing the green-and-white.

Onuachu has found the back of the net just once in seven matches since making his debut for Nigeria two years ago.

In his defence, many argued that Onuachu often falters for the Super Eagles because the team is not set up to take advantage of his towering height and his predatory instincts in the opponent’s box.

Whichever side of the fence one rests, Onuachu, with his 27 club goals this season, was without a doubt Nigeria’s most prolific striker in Europe and had merited his eventual callup.

However, it is to his credit that Onuachu did not let the harsh criticisms weigh him down. Neither did he let his head drop when his name failed to make it to the first eleven in Porto Novo despite Alex Iwobi’s late withdrawal after failing a coronavirus test.

Rohr’s preferred striking duo of Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho missed several chances as Nigeria failed to make their dominance count against the Squirrels.

Rohr then turned to the one man that would not have been on the bench had circumstances permitted, sending on the Genk man for Iheanacho with 20 minutes left to play.

And just when the game appeared destined to end as a scoreless draw, Onuachu showed his penalty box killer instincts, towering above his marker to head home three minutes into stoppage time after an initial shot from Osimhen was blocked.

That Onuachu winning goal ensured Nigeria claim all the three points at stake in Benin, guaranteeing the three-time African champions’ top spot in Group L of AFCON qualifying regardless of the outcome of their final match against Lesotho on Tuesday, March 30.

It also ended the Squirrels’ eight-year unbeaten record on home soil, extending Nigeria’s dominance over their West African neighbours to 13 wins across all competitions.

That late Onuachu header also beats back the harsh criticisms that would have flowed towards Rohr for guiding the Super Eagles to another lame draw after enduring three such stalemates in 2020.

So much from a rejected stone.

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