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Leon Balogun’s dwindling form should worry Nigeria

Gernot Rohr perhaps gave a glimpse of what to expect at this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with his line-up against Seychelles in the dead-rubber fixture. Among others, the Franco-German displayed zero tolerance for bench-warmers at club level.

While Mikel Obi and Ogenyi Onazi continue oblivious exiles, Rohr came out hard on some perceived untouchables. Most notably, Kenneth Omeruo was preferred to partner William Troost-Ekong in the heart of defence instead of regular suspect Leon Balogun.

Balogun didn’t make the sort of impact envisaged at Brighton. Betting site tipped the Nigerian to stroll into Chris Hughton’s team after joining on a free transfer from Mainz in 2018. But after 32 rounds of matches, he’s started just five matches.

Balogun waited almost six months to make his Premier League bow – a brief cameo appearance against Huddersfield in December. He followed that up with a thunderbastard in A23 derby. He got a rare start at Burnley and garnered four others. Since the year’s turn, however, the 30-year-old fortunes dwindled.

Ekong and Omeruo, meanwhile, are ever-present for Udinese and Leganes respectively. The 25-year-old Dutch-born defender missed just two of his Italian club games, starting 28. Omeruo racked up eight fewer in La Liga.

Despite an incredible career that spanned over a decade, Balogun felt like a little boy when he heard of Brighton’s interest last summer. England is a favourite destination for African football tourists, especially Nigerians. The Premier League is paradise.

For Balogun, it was a first-hand experience. The Bundesliga was all he knew. Born in Berlin to a Nigerian dad, the 30-year-old took his first footballing lessons at hometown club, Türkiyemspor Berlin. He then practised his craft at five other Deutschland sides, including Werder Bremen.

England’s elite division is on another level. There’s higher cash influx, quality players and managers as well as better coverage. Balogun didn’t want to be left. He had no qualms moving abroad, with the FIFA World Cup on the horizon.

That decision is already hurting the Nigerian. Balogun is the third choice in Hughton’s centre-back hierarchy behind Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk. He’s been featured nine times across all competitions. While Hughton deserves some slack for the limited game time, Balogun is culpable too. Indeed, the Nigerian has an imposing physical presence, standing at 6ft 3.

He is fearless in tackles and brave on the air. He provides additional threat during set pieces and could occasionally provide that odd goal to win games. However, Balogun isn’t gifted in terms of pace. The Premier League’s tempo is at an extraordinary level and requires defenders to flow with it. More often than not, Balogun is left in no man’s land, chasing attackers.

At 30, the Nigerian doesn’t have age on his side. He must improve on this aspect to break the Duffy-Dunk duopoly. Although he acquitted himself with almost unrelenting excellence all the way through with the national side, his dip in form lately is slightly below that threshold. Rohr is aware. In the qualifiers against Libya, the 30-year-old was part of a backline that struggled at times, notable ceding a two-goal advantage in Sfax before rebounding to get a winner.

For all his strengths, Balogun performs better as the less aggressive of the centre-back pairing, dropping off to hoover up what slips through the net. When there is no net, he would understandably be less effective.

With the AFCON on the horizon, Rohr may have to alter his reliable defensive pairing. Except for some drastic happens, Balogun will be on the flight to Egypt but as one of many spectators.

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