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Meet superstar who signed for Chelsea before Hazard but yet to make first-team appearance

Last updated 1 year ago | By AFP

Nigeria's defender Kenneth Omeruo (L) heads the ball to score during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football match between Nigeria and Guinea at the Alexandria Stadium on June 26, 2019. [AFP]

He signed for Chelsea before Eden Hazard, Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, but seven years after his arrival Nigeria’s Kenneth Omeruo is yet to make a first-team appearance for the Premier League giants.

It’s unlikely the 25-year-old centre-back ever will run out at Stamford Bridge although Omeruo is establishing himself as one of the continent’s premier defenders at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

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He is one of three survivors -- alongside John Obi Mikel and Ahmed Musa -- from the Super Eagles squad that won the title in 2013, when a teenaged Omeruo started five of six games including the 1-0 win over surprise finalists Burkina Faso.

After failing to qualify for the two subsequent editions, Nigeria’s return to the event has been plagued by a dispute over unpaid bonuses that resulted in a brief training strike after an opening 1-0 defeat of Burundi.

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Arrest warrants have also since been ordered for the country’s top football officials after they failed to appear in court as part of an ongoing corruption case, but Omeruo is keen to put such distractions to one side.

“We knew no matter what was going on behind, our job is to play and Nigerians are hoping that we win every game so we knew we had to forget every other thing and ... be the first to qualify from our group,” Omeruo said after his header in a 1-0 victory over Guinea secured qualification for the last 16.

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“It’s important to stay focused, we have a wonderful squad. I’ve been out for a while and they’ve been playing and they’ve been doing good. It doesn’t matter who plays we have a strong defence, it showed (against Guinea) and I just want to give my best.”

A shock 2-0 loss to Madagascar left Nigeria facing a blockbuster showdown with holders Cameroon that highlighted Omeruo’s importance to Gernot Rohr’s side.

He was rested by the German for the final group game in which Nigeria gifted Madagascar an early goal and never recovered. The defeat placed the Super Eagles on a potential collision course with Egypt, should they overcome five-time champions Cameroon.

Omeruo’s impact is remarkable given a succession of loan spells away from Chelsea, the latest of which took him to Leganes in Spain where he was a regular under former Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino.

Following his 2012 transfer from Standard Liege, Omeruo has also spent time in the Netherlands and Turkey either side of an 18-month stint with Middlesbrough in the English second division.