Is William Troost-Ekong the Super Eagles’ weakest link in defence?

Skippered by Watford defender William Troost-Ekong, the Super Eagles forced eternal rivals Ghana to a thrilling 0-0 draw at the Baba Yara Stadium, Kumasi.

Placed 32nd on the FIFA world rankings and boasting some of the continent’s most exciting forwards, Nigeria were the bookmakers’ slight favourites to edge 61st-ranked Black Stars.

It was, however, always going to be a difficult battle at the ground where Ghana trounced Egypt 6-1 and mauled Ethiopia 5-0 in previous World Cup qualifiers.

And at the final whistle, the hosts were overall the better side, enjoying 56 percent of the ball possession (it was a massive 63% in the first half), hitting ten shots, and winning nine corners.

In an atmosphere created by over 70,000 Ghanaians squeezed into a 40,000-capacity ground, it is a near-miracle that the Super Eagles made it out barely unscathed.

It is not surprising that Nigerian defenders and goalkeeper Francis Uzoho had some of the highest ratings of the evening, with Uzoho (7.77), Leon Balogun (7.5), and Ola Aina (7.4) the best of them, as per Sofascore.

Captain Troost-Ekong’s performance and rating (6.9) was also not terrible. But he had the most difficult time of all the Nigerian defenders.

The Watford centre-back lost possession seven times, lost all of his ground duels, was dribbled past twice, and had partner Balogun to thank for bailing him out of trouble more than once.

Having not played any competitive match since Nigeria’s defeat to Tunisia at the Afcon in January, Troost-Ekong’s rustiness in Kumasi is understandable.

But can the Super Eagles survive another sloppy performance from the #5 in the return leg?

The Eagles will have home advantage in their favour when they file out against Ghana on Tuesday.

But the tie is still so delicately balanced that any mistake could be costly. With the away goal rule still in operation, for any goal the Black Stars score, the Eagles must net one more to qualify.

An impregnable defence will be crucial to a victory over the Ghanaians.

But should a better defender replace Troost-Ekong in the second leg?

Leganes’ Kenneth Omeruo and West Brom’s Semi Ajayi are the options available for Augustine Eguavoen, in case the caretaker coach ponders a switch. Rangers youngster Calvin Bassey can also deliver a decent showing as a centre-half.

But Omeruo has only returned from an injury that kept him away from action since February 11. And the 28-year-old would only be just as rusty as Ekong and maybe even more terrible beside Balogun.

Ajayi, on the other hand, shines more when deployed on the right of a three-man central defensive setup.

But it is unlikely that Eguavoen will dump his preferred 4-4-2 for a conservative 3-5-2 to accommodate the former Arsenal man.

And only a rookie risk-taker would deploy Bassey, who only made his international debut on Friday, as a central defender in probably the Super Eagles’ biggest game this decade.

So, yes, Troost-Ekong is not at his finest at the moment, but he is better than the other options available for Eguavoen. And it would be the job of the head coach to provide a better midfield screen for the defence against the Black Stars.

A midfield trio of Oghenekaro Etebo, Frank Onyeka, and Joe Aribo should have the grit and gut to support the defence and just enough guile and gumption to link with the attack.

And with Victor Osimhen back to his firing best, the Super Eagles can paper over their flaws, defeat Ghana’s Black Stars, and book their flight to Qatar in style.

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