Alex Iwobi thriving under Frank Lampard at Everton, Sebastien Haller relentless again
Elsewhere, Sebastien Haller bounced back from his underwhelming Africa Cup of Nations with a hat-trick for Ajax Amsterdam in the Dutch Eredivisie, and Moses Simon maintained the excellent form he showed for Nigeria in that tournament by scoring the winner for Nantes against Stade Reims in French Ligue 1.
Few players will have been as desperate to have put the Nations Cup behind them as Iwobi, who struggled to impact Nigeria’s group-stage fixtures before being sent off with a straight red card for a high foot only seven minutes after his entrance in the Super Eagles’ Round-of-16 exit against Tunisia.
The red card was a ‘contribution’ that led to Iwobi being pilloried on social media, with many Super Eagles supporters holding him responsible for Nigeria’s premature exit from a tournament they’d dominated during the early stages.
Against this backdrop, he will surely have been relieved to have returned to Everton with the opportunity to rebound from his disastrous time in Cameroon.
The club he returned to is different to that which he left earlier in the year, with Rafael Benitez’s troubled reign on Merseyside brought to a halt and Chelsea great Frank Lampard installed in his place.
Benitez’s history with Liverpool — and comments previously made against Everton — ensured that his time at the People’s Club was fractious from the off, with some portions of the fanbase refusing to accept him as Toffees manager and others quickly withdrawing the benefit of the doubt as results turned against the club.
For a confidence player such as Iwobi, the toxic attitude on the terraces at Goodison Park appears to have had a significant impact on his performances; the midfielder — once heralded as the next big thing of Nigerian soccer — showing precious little of the talent that once made him one of the Super Eagles’ brightest prospects.
He scored just once and contributed an assist for the Toffees during the first half of the season, but since his return from the AFCON he has produced an assist off the bench against Brentford in the FA Cup and a scintillating showing against Leeds United.
His latest performance was one of his best for Everton since his big-money arrival from Arsenal in 2019, and he was influential as they ran out 3-0 winners.
Fuelled by Lampard’s commitment to attacking, front-foot football, and the creativity and composure of new signing Donny van de Beek, the Toffees took the initiative from the off, with Iwobi appearing to be unshackled from the doubts and fears that had characterised his recent Everton displays.
No longer cowed by Benitez’s reactive, conservative style, Everton looked proactive and potent, and Iwobi actively sought to express himself, to cut inside, and to punish a Leeds defence that allowed the hosts space to operate.
It seems the incoming coach understands the Nigerian is not a conventional byline winger but a player who is more effective when he can come inside, express himself between the lines, and get the best out of those players around him.
He appeared to have his confidence back — not entirely expected after the AFCON debacle — but a consequence, surely, of Lampard’s encouragement behind the scenes.
“One of the beauties of coming in two weeks ago is it’s a restart, a reboot for everybody,” Lampard said after the Leeds game.
“I’m open minded to players, all of the squad, and what Alex has done is he’s trained at a great level.
“He’s a quiet lad, keeps his head down, trains with talent, trains with work ethic, and the way we changed the formation of the team and played with wide-men as we did, Alex has just sort of demanded a place in the team with his performance.
“He just needs to believe in himself, and I said it to him before the game. I certainly believe in him from the things I’ve seen but the work ethic side of his game he showed in that role.”
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, however, and just as some obstinate Everton supporters refused to accept Benitez, many will be skeptical that Iwobi can turn things around at the club and repay the £34 million fee to sign him from Arsenal.
An improved mood on the terraces will surely help — for however long it lasts — as will a more adventurous approach from Lampard that ought to allow the team’s more creative players to express themselves.
Largely, Iwobi’s work rate has shone despite his indifferent Everton career, and it’s imperative that he maintains the endeavour he’s shown while coupling it with greater end product, decision-making and, critically, consistency.
While Iwobi was Nigeria’s dud of the Nations Cup, Simon was the Eagles’ star performer in Cameroon, notably netting a goal and an assist in the victory over Sudan.
No one averaged more dribbles per match throughout the tournament in Cameroon, and Simon maintained his excellent form to scored the only goal of the game for Nantes in their 1 victory over Reims.
While Simon’s qualities at the Nations Cup were seen from open play — his take-ons, his speed in wide areas, his agility up against defenders — his effort against Reims was a stunning free kick from the edge of the box, showcasing an undervalued area of his game.
The diminutive wideman has now had a hand in nine goals in 20 league outings for Nantes this season.
On the Super Eagles theme, Victor Osimhen, who missed the AFCON, earned an early penalty for Napoli as they took the lead in their 1-1 draw with Internazionale; it was the highlight of a committed and intense display from the striker, even if the Patenopei weren’t able to overtake the Milan duo to top spot in Serie A.
Samuel Chukwueze also caught the eye as Europe-chasing Villarreal held Real Madrid 0-0, registering five completed dribbles — bettered only by Vinicius Junior — as the Yellow Submarine took a point from the LaLiga leaders.
Elsewhere, Haller may have only scored once in four AFCON games, but no one can deny his impact in the Eredivisie, where he continued to spearhead Ajax’s title tilt with a hat-trick.
With nearest rivals PSV Eindhoven having dropped six points in their past three fixtures, the Amsterdam heavyweights have a five-point lead atop the table after thumping Twente 5-0 on Sunday.
Haller came alive after the break, taking his tally for the season to 16 goals (and six assists) in 19 games this season.
The outing was the Ivorian’s 50th appearance for Ajax, and, remarkably, he’s scored 41 and registered 15 assists in that time — recording a decisive contribution every 80 minutes.
Even in light of his unconvincing time in the Premier League with West Ham United, the world’s biggest clubs must surely be considering the outstanding, well-rounded striker ahead of the summer transfer window.
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