NIGERIANS SET FOR AFRICAN CAMPAIGN
The African Cup of Nations gets underway in South Africa today, with three Chelsea men involved in the colours of Nigeria and another watching closely from Stamford Bridge.
John Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and youngster Kenneth Omeruo, whom we will hear more about shortly, are in the Super Eagles squad for the tournament, while technical director Michael Emenalo, a former Nigeria international, is pleased to see the tournament fall in line with the European football calendar.
They have been placed in a group with outsiders Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, as well as reigning champions Zambia. Good news for Chelsea is the absence of Demba Ba's Senegal, while there is also no Cameroon or Egypt, regular attendees of the later stages in recent competitions. Michael Essien, on loan with Real Madrid, continues his international break and does not feature in the Ghana squad.
For Moses, there will be a Nations Cup debut, and he told the official Chelsea website before departing for duty that he is looking forward to the experience.
'I've not played in an international tournament before so I'm looking forward to it and I'm going to try and help my country,' he said. 'The last time Nigeria won the African Nations was in 1994 so it's time we did well again.
'I've never been to South Africa either and I'm looking forward to that too. Of course I'll be keeping in touch with what Chelsea are doing, and tweeting while I am there to keep people informed of what's going on.'
The winger admitted he was as yet unsure of what to expect from the opposition, but was hopeful that after a training camp in Portugal, Nigeria would be ready to rule.
'I don't know a lot about the teams in our group but I know that we will have hard games in every match. I'm looking forward to it. Nigeria have been doing well and have had a couple of friendly games lately, and there is still time to improve,' he said.
While Moses is yet to sample a tournament, Omeruo (pictured below) has not yet experienced a competitive fixture at international level, only making his senior debut in a friendly against Cape Verde Islands in Faro last week. For those unfamiliar with the defender, Emenalo provided a useful briefing on a player who has spent this season on loan in Holland with Den Haag having signed in January 2012.
'Kenneth was spotted in the World Under-20 tournament in Colombia in 2011, and he was named in the best 11 by a lot of scouts, he was a star performer,' he explained. 'Oriol Romeu, Oscar and Ulises Davila all played too.
'Kenneth was an outstanding centre-back, and we liked the look of him. He is strong, athletic, composed and very comfortable on the ball. He fits our profile of the modern centre-back and has great potential, but we don't expect him to really mature until he is a little older.
'The problem we had is the work permit issue, and we wanted to figure out what we needed to do. Part of the idea for us was to not lose out on him. I watched a lot of games again and we were able to send him out on loan to Holland, a competition that is renowned for the development of younger players.
'He has been used as a right-back a lot by Den Haag, which is good for him because it allows him to improve on the ball and play in smaller spaces. At centre-back it then becomes easier and you can see more around you.'
As a proud Nigerian who played at the World Cup in America in 1994, Emenalo admits split loyalties ahead of the Cup of Nations. While he wants success for Nigeria, he would also be pleased with the return of Mikel and Moses to Stamford Bridge during a busy period.
'It's a difficult one for me. We have two players out there pivotal to what we're trying to achieve here,' he reasoned. 'I get paid by Chelsea but have a patriotic passion for my country. I'd be very happy if they're able to do it and win, for my country but also because as a Chelsea fan and employee we have given two of the best players they have, who are playing some of the best football of their careers.
'Victor has come in and has a manager that trusts him, so it's not great timing, but it's what you have to do, and I wish them well in South Africa.'
Emenalo is also pleased the Cup of Nations has been rescheduled to take place in odd years, ensuring it never again clashes with a World Cup, as in 2006 and 2010.
'This is the right way to go, and we're all grateful that finally steps are being take into bring African competition in line with the rest. European football in particular is a great avenue for African players and it's important it's taken into consideration,' he said.
Nigeria begin their games with a match against Burkina Faso on Monday evening. As always, you will be able to keep up to date with the Chelsea players' progress at the tournament right here on the official club website.