CHAN hero Dele Ajiboye staking claim for World Cup spot

Dele Ajiboye of Nigeria Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Dele Ajiboye is emerging as one of Nigeria's African Nations Championship heroes, and as the World Cup approaches, Gernot Rohr should take note.

While Gabriel Okechukwu was named Man of the Match in Nigeria's African Nations Championship semi-final victory over Sudan on Wednesday, goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye arguably had a bigger impact in determining the result of the game with a string of impressive saves.

His form in that high-profile clash immediately inserts him into Nigeria's goalkeeping situation ahead of the World Cup, where the 27-year-old may yet be an unlikely contender for the Super Eagles.

The Plateau United man had to patiently bide his time as backup to first-choice and captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa at the CHAN.

When called upon in the early minutes of the physical semi-final clash against the Falcons after Ezenwa got injured, Ajiboye earned double his match bonus and must have definitely caught the watching eye of Gernot Rohr.

Certainly, Sudan coach Zdravko Logarusic was particularly impressed by the stopper's display.

"[Ajiboye] started well and, for me, he is the Man of The Match," Logarusic told journalists after the match. "He is the one who gave Nigeria the final slot.

"When they needed help at the back, he was the man who saved them."

The journey to the top for the 2007 FIFA U17 World Cup winner hasn't being as direct and smooth as he would have projected 11 years ago after helping Nigeria to their third title.

Like most African goalkeepers, he struggled to earn a move to Europe, and when he eventually did sign for Pontevedra CF in the lower division of Spain, Ajiboye was soon back in the shores of Nigeria after two years playing professionally abroad.

He soon settled back into the domestic top-flight league, playing for a number of clubs including Shooting Stars, Nasarawa United and Warri Wolves.

However, success had largely evaded him before he joined Plateau United at the start of last season.

The decision to move to Jos proved to be a masterstroke for the talented goalkeeper as won the NPFL title last term, reminding observers of the qualities which made him a standout talent during his time with Nigeria's youth teams.

With Ezenwa still injured, Ajiboye now has a shot at unlikely glory, as he will certainly start the final against Morocco on Sunday.

Another successful display there, and the stopper could realistically begin to dream of a berth in Nigeria's World Cup squad.

Rohr recently told KwesèESPN that he is yet to decide who will be first-choice for the Eagles in Russia, an uncertainty which could create room for a major surprise in goal at the World Cup.

It's not unfeasible that, when Ezenwa returns from injury, the competition he faces at Enyimba - where Fatau Dauda and Theophilus Afelokhai are both excellent options between the sticks - means he's constantly rotated.

That could be a massive advantage to Ajiboye, who will play regularly - both domestically and in the CAF Champions League - to ensure that he's sharper for the challenges to come.

If Rohr and his coaching crew decide to put their faith in Ezenwa and Ajiboye as two of the three goalkeepers at the World Cup, it will be only a second time Nigeria have taken two home-based sttoppers to the tournament.

Until the semi final, it would have been hard to imagine that any other NPFL guardsman could usurp Ezenwa as Nigeria's number one in Russia, but if Ajiboye repeats his Sudan heroics against Morocco, then don't be surprised if the 27-year-old puts himself firmly into the mix.