<
>

Could Henry Onyekuru yet gatecrash Nigeria's World Cup party?

Henry Onyekuru is back in the Nigeria squad EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

Nigeria international forward Henry Onyekuru made an earlier-than-expected return to training this week after recovering from potentially season-ending medial ligament damage.

His remarkable recovery on the eve of the World Cup puts him back in reckoning to gatecrash Nigeria's squad for the tournament, following in the footsteps of James Obiorah and Lukman Haruna.

The aforementioned duo gatecrashed Nigeria's 2002 and 2010 World Cup teams respectively on the back of a strong finish to the season and impressive displays in pre-tournament friendlies.

Obiorah also benefited from Wilson Oruma's indifferent form to sneak into the squad as a potential ace up the sleeve for coach Festus Onigbinde.

Having just come back from a devastating injury, Onyekuru has his work cut out to make the squad, but can he do enough to prove his fitness to coach Gernot Rohr?

If he fails, he risks suffering the same fate as Ikechukwu Uche, who missed the cut for the 2010 event despite making his comeback from cruciate ligament damage with Real Zaragoza.

Despite being the team's leading scorer in qualifiers, Uche was deemed not ready for the World Cup by Lars Lagerback, missing his opportunity to join his brother Kalu Uche in the squad.

Things looked bleak for 20-year-old Onyekuru at the start of the year, as his World Cup dreams appeared to have gone up in smoke.

Three days before Christmas, the wideman was having a decent campaign, having scored 10 in 28 on loan at Anderlecht from Everton, before his setback.

As fate would have it, his then-season ending injury happened at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium against erstwhile employers Eupen, with whom he'd burst onto the scene so memorably the season before.

After been stretched off in the closing stages of the encounter, his worst fears and those of Nigerians were confirmed a couple of days later as Onyekuru was projected to be sidelined for six months, ultimately endangering his World Cup dreams.

A return to parent club Everton for medical examination revealed the injury wasn't as bad as first feared, but the diagnosis at that time offered little reassurance for the trip to Russia.

Lat term, Onyekuru took the top flight by storm, as his consistent goalscoring return sealed a playoff spot for a modest Eupen side.

By the end of the season, the previously unheralded youngster had finished with 22 league goals from 38 outings - averaging 0.58 strikes per game and only lost out on the Golden Boot to Lukasz Teodorczyk, who had more assists despite finishing level on goals with the West African.

One key attribute that may set the two-cap international out from the rest of the park is his versatility.

Despite emphasis on his amazing speed, skill, and impressive goal rate, it's actually this versatility across the forward line that could help him sneak into Rohr's plans. He even featured briefly at left wing-back for Anderlecht, and could be a valuable asset in a tournament environment.

Rohr has recently tinkered with the Eagles' formation with an eye on the World Cup, and having a player in his ranks who could feature in multiple positions could make a tangible difference for Nigeria in the event of injuries, suspensions, loss of form and a tactical reshuffle.

Onyekuru's form over these past two seasons indicates he will be an asset to a misfiring Eagles attack, but will he avoid the fate that befell Uche eight years ago?

If he can, then Onyekuru could yet be a major asset to the Eagles at the World Cup and one of the genuine breakout stars in Russia. His unlikely recovery would also be a feel-good subplot for Nigeria as they attempt to write another chapter in their Mundial history.