If there was ever a doubt about Junior Ajayi’s big game mentality, stepping forward and cooly dispatching a potential game winning penalty kick for Al Ahly’s place on the podium at the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup last night was perfect enough to dispel it.
Ajayi’s conversion and Mohamed El Shenawy’s penalty save to deny Filipe Melo won the African champions, bronze at the expense of ES Palmeiras in a 3-2 shootout victory after a goalless affair in regular time.
On the night, Bayern Munich won the CWC, defeating UANL Tigres 1-0, to complete a sextuplet of titles in 2020.
Ajayi surely put his name on the football map and certainly not for the first time has he delivered on the big stage.
The versatile attacker, making his first appearance for Al Ahly since an injury in the CAF Champions League final against Zamalek last November, showed why he continues to earn his spot in a competitive squad like Al Ahly’s and also why Super Eagles Manager, Gernot Rohr must take him seriously.
From his days at 3SC where he undoubtedly was the best player on the squad to his CS Sfaxien days, Ajayi not only morphed into a complete footballer, he also showed that he could conveniently fit a support cast role if need be.
This willingness to drop out of the cynosure may have also prompted the erroneous perception of an ineffective player.
In every attacking role he is a threat to the opposition team. He’s an intelligent dribbler and pacy.
As a support striker he’s creative, holds up play well, can be physical and uses small spaces quite efficiently.
His goal return don’t do his work rate much justice, but he makes up for it with his quick aggressive pressing to win balls off opponents high up the pitch and set up teammates.
He should be considered, seriously, for Nigeria’s forthcoming international matches next month.
The Super Eagles face Benin Republic and Lesotho in back to back matches of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
The stakes are high and the Manager needs match winners in his squad, to help pick at least 4 points from both games to secure qualification for the tournament in Cameroon.
Ajayi’s stock is on the rise and it’ll do the under fire Manager some good to bring back a local hero with a perpetually growing international profile.
The 25 year-old has not earned a cap for the senior team although he was first invited in 2017.
Now, injury to Samuel Chukwueze and Ahmed Musa’s clubless situation, should readily open up a spot for Ajayi, who is certain to get more game time at club level, when Al Ahly return to Egypt.
Rohr has frequently come under fair criticism for his lack of tactical versatility or flexibility. It’s a problem that equally extends to his team selection, one reason why the likes of Ajayi have been left in international limbo.
Perhaps the player’s exploit at the CWC will change that now or soon enough, but it’ll be almost unthinkable if he doesn’t get a second chance – after all that’s what Rohr’s contract extension was about.