Nigeria internationals Emmanuel Dennis and Moses Simon endured differing fortunes last weekend, with the former finally losing his battle against relegation with Watford, and the latter getting his hands on silverware in France.
Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal continued his fine late-season form to demonstrate to Ghana supporters why they should be getting excited about his mooted Black Stars switch, while Said Benrahma scored twice for West Ham United as they bounced back from UEFA Europa League heartbreak.
Simon claimed the first major silverware of his career with Nantes‘ 1-0 triumph over Nice at Stade de France ending their 22-year wait for the prestigious Coupe de France — Ludovic Blas‘s 47th-minute penalty separating the two sides.
Simon has enjoyed a fine spell at Nantes since signing — initially on loan — from Levante in 2019, notably being named in the Canaries’ supporters’ Team of the Decade after only one campaign in the yellow-and-green shirt.
This season has been his best yet, with the wideman having had a hand in 14 league goals — three more than his previous career best.
In truth, he wasn’t at his best in the final, with several set pieces fired wastefully away from danger, and promising link-up play with Randal Kolo Muani ultimately breaking down.
Simon lacked the confidence and conviction he’d demonstrated during the barnstorming group stage outings for Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations, or the cutting edge he showcased just over a week ago when he netted both goals in Nantes’ 2-2 draw at Lens.
The pair fluffed their lines when Kolo Muani should have played Simon in for Nantes’ second just before the hour mark, but their partnership boasted just enough menace to keep Nice on the back foot for large stages of the contest.
This French Cup success represents a new high in Simon’s career — he has won a Belgian league title with Gent — and will surely prompt speculation about whether it’s time for him to test himself at a higher level, despite the fact that this victory ensures the Canaries qualify for Europe next season.
The has been reported interest from the likes of Newcastle United and Leeds United, and don’t be surprised if the 26-year-old, who has two years left on his contract, is the subject of more intense speculation as the summer transer window approaches.
Kolo Muani, the game’s outstanding individual, already has his future sorted, with the 23-year-old Franco-Congolese attacker set to join Eintracht Frankfurt during the offseason.
The 23-year-old was a constant threat for the Nice defence, pressuring them intently and regularly beating his man, and he was influential in the move that led to Nantes’ penalty, awarded after Algeria’s Hicham Boudaoui handled in the box.
While Simon tasted glory, his compatriots at Watford officially lost their battle against relegation from the Englaish Premier League to the Championship.
Confirmation came in the form of a 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, with Wilfried Zaha netting the only goal of the game; the loss confirmed the Hornets’ return to the Championship official, but it had been a formality after the previous weekend’s home defeat by Burnley realistically killed any hopes of survival.
Relegation may prompt a complete overhaul for a Watford squad with few impressive performers, and spells an uncertain future for the seven Nigerian players currently on their books.
Loanees Maduka Okoye, Tom Dele-Bashiru and Dapo Mebude will likely return to the club and compete for playing time in the Championship, but it remains to be seen whether Peter Etebo‘s loan from Stoke City will be made permanent.
William Troost-Ekong, who ought to be in his prime at 28, has fallen out of contention since the arrival of Roy Hodgson, while Samuel Kalu recently signed a three-year deal and should stick around, despite playing just 46 minutes this season.
Dennis, however, faces a different scenario having boosted his reputation during this most testing of campaigns.
Signed last summer with something of a wayward reputation after being ditched by Club Brugge, having reacted very badly to finding someone in his seat in the team bus, Dennis settled quickly in English football and has had a hand in 16 goals this term.
Dennis’s run of 10 goals and assists in eight games between October and December prompted optimism that Watford could beat the drop, and there are sure to be some Premier League clubs chasing his signature in the transfer window.
Reports in the British press suggest that Champions League semifinalists Villarreal are considering a swoop for Dennis.
Also in the Premier League, Nketiah maintained his magnificent late-season form with another double as Arsenal defeated Leeds 2-1 at Emirates Stadium.
The 22-year-old failed to score in his first 14 Premier League outings of the season, but he now has four goal in four appearances — he also scored twice in Arsenal’s 4-2 victory at Chelsea last month — to fuel the Gunners’ bid for UEFA Champions League qualification.
Nketiah set the tone for a vibrant first half for the North Londoners when he opened the scoring in the fifth minute, acting quickest to close down the overly ambitious Illan Meslier — taking one touch too many — before firing home beyond the French goalkeeper.
The Anglo-Ghanaian striker’s hunger to close down the keeper certainly indicated he’s in no mind to down tools as the end of his Arsenal contract draws closer.
Five minutes later, Nketiah had another against his former club as he finished coolly having been picked out by Gabriel Martinelli‘s cut-back — once again reaffirming his refined instincts in and around the penalty area.
“Eddie’s doing what he’s done all season; he’s been very consistent with his performances, and how little he’s giving away,” Mikel Arteta said after the match, attempting to move the conversation away from Arsenal’s inability to pin the young forward down to a new deal.
“Let him be, let him enjoy the moment because he completely deserves it and things will happen naturally.”
Arteta may yet regret his failure to convince Nketiah to commit his long-term future to the club having under-utilised the forward for much of his tenure, despite forwards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe losing their way (or never truly finding it) at the Emirates.
West Ham and former admirers Crystal Palace are among the clubs linked to the attacker, although Arsenal may yet feel that Champions League qualification could give them the edge over the forward’s would-be suitors.
Expect Nketiah’s international future to be a subject of discussion again in the coming weeks, with the forward opening the door to switching allegiances to Ghana in an interview in April.
His words will surely fuel hope in West Africa that he will soon play for the Black Stars, although there ought also to be some concern that his recent form may pique the interest of Gareth Southgate.
In contrast to Nketiah’s excellence against Leeds, Pepe endured another outing to forget — the Ivory Coast wideman missing a gilt-edged chance to put the game to bed.
The miss ultimately didn’t cost the Gunners, but it was another moment that smacked of a player short on confidence and conviction at this stage of his career.
“When you see that he’s got an empty net in front of him and he’s taking a touch backward, we cannot really understand but you have to have the perception of the player in that moment,” Arteta said.
“They are the ones who make the decisions, and fortunately, we didn’t need that goal.”
Finally, Benrahma netted twice for West Ham as they bounced back from their Europa League elimination at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt to dispatch Norwich City 4-0 — ending a five-game winless run — while Bamba Dieng scored Marseille‘s opener in their 3-0 triumph over Lorient as they, too, overcame the heartache of a midweek continental exit.
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