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Rejected man turns Eagles most cherieshed

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, it was game time between the Super Eagles and Equatorial Guinea under the scorching sun at the Stade Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan.

A young Nigerian — not a popular name among the country’s football-crazy faithful — stepped out from the dugout donning the No.4 jersey, made popular by the mercurial Nwankwo Kanu.

It was his debut game for the Eagles and it was at the highest level of African football — the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

Definitely, the question on the lips of several fans would have been, “Who’s this new man on jersey No.4?”

However, the game was barely halfway played when this 6ft9in nimble-footed midfielder had etched his name — Alhassan Yusuf — in the hearts of the fans with his work ethic, discipline, versatility, hard work, determination and dedication.

It ended 1-1 between both sides, and expectedly fans back home voiced their frustrations over the Eagles inability to beat lesser foes.

However, despite their anger, most of the fans praised Yusuf, who they insisted was best performer on the pitch in Abidjan, even though Jesus Owono, the impressive Nzalang Nacional goalkeeper, who thwarted the Eagles goal-bound efforts time and again, was named CAF’s Man of The Match after the encounter.

The Royal Antwerp man proved to be the missing link in the Eagles’ otherwise ineffective midfield as he covered every blade of grass during his time on the pitch.

According to Sofascore and Fotmob, the Kano-born player won seven duels – the most by any player on the field in the game.

Stats also showed that no Equatorial Guinea player was able to beat the youngster one-on-one while he was on the pitch. While no opponent was able to dribble past him, Yusuf won three tackles and one interception.

The man, who has been likened to Chelsea legend N’Golo Kante, created one big chance, made one key pass and completed two of two attempted crosses in the game.

With the numbers posted by Yusuf, the little-known 23-year-old midfielder became an instant hero back home despite the scathing criticisms launched at the team.

Originally not part of the Eagles’ final 25-man squad for the AFCON in Ivory Coast, the 23-year-old was lucky to make the team after a late injury to Wilfred Ndidi, which ruled the Leicester City midfielder out of the tournament.

As a player yet to don the Eagles jersey, the Antwerp man was called straight into action and was handed a start against the National Thunder as the three-time AFCON champions began their quest for a fourth title.

While Nigeria failed to get the much-needed victory over Juan Micha’s men, who are ranked 18th in Africa, Yusuf put up a great performance that left many Nigerians singing his praises.

“Indeed, he was my best player, very energetic and was everywhere,” CAF Champions League winner, Victor Ezeji, said of the Antwerp midfielder.

While Equatorial Guinea’s goalkeeper, Jesús Owono, was voted Man of The Match, Kalu Emmanuel believes that Yusuf deserved the accolade.

“Alhassan Yusuf, Man of The Match. So bad he got injured in the game,” he said.

Disappointed with the game, Favour Azubuike reserved her praises for Yusuf.

“The only impressive person to me was Alhassan Yusuf. He wasn’t invited initially but he made his mark in this game, he used his debut well.”

Anawo Michael simply wrote, “Alhassan was fantastic.”

Yusuf was on the field for 69 minutes before he was stretched off after sustaining an injury to his thigh.

For a player who just made his debut, his injury raised so much fear among fans who were hoping that he would be fit in time for the Eagles’ second Group A game against Ivory Coast on Thursday.

Yusuf has however confirmed that he only suffered a cramp during the game against Equatorial Guinea.

“My injury is just a cramp, we will see if I’ll be available against Ivory Coast,” he said.

The news came as big news for some fans.

Kaima wrote, “Thank God. This 23-year-old was bullying our opponents and schooling (Alex) Iwobi and co on how to play midfield football, he was exceptional. When he was taken out I was just praying we manage the score line till the final whistle.”

Ali_boja Alwaezyy added, “Thank God, our main hustle on the midfield, he doesn’t get tired. He must have played a lot of hide and seek while growing.”

Also pleased with the report, Talmudic Sage tweeted, “That’s good news. He was our best player today (Sunday) and we need him to be 100 per cent fit against CIV.”

“I hope he stays fit because we need him. What a game he had before the injury scare,” Sir Uno wrote.

With a lot to play for on Thursday against the hosts, fans will hope that Yusuf can replicate his impressive debut display when both sides clash in one of the most highly anticipated group games of the AFCON.

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