John Utaka is set to be handed the chance to stake his claim for a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ starting berth in Nigeria's friendly clash with Republic of Ireland tomorrow.
National coach Amodu Shuaibu is likely to start Utaka at Craven Cottage after injuries robbed him of several key strikers ahead of the crucial qualifying clash with Kenya in Abuja on 7 June. The most notable absentees are Obafemi Martins, the Newcastle striker who is due to undergo surgery on a long-standing groin complaint, and Hoffenheim's Chinedu Obasi, who visited a Munich-based specialist last week in an effort to recover from a similar problem.
A spate of other withdrawals from clubs still involved in their domestic seasons - including Everton's Joseph Yobo and the Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi - has severely disrupted Shuaibu's plans for the meeting with the Irish and next Tuesday's friendly international with France in St Etienne. The only consolation is that Utaka might use Friday's outing in south-west London to play himself back into form after a poor season at Portsmouth.
The 27-year-old scored just one goal, against Sunderland earlier this month, and could find himself surplus to requirements on the English south coast when the transfer window reopens next month. A final decision on his future is unlikely to be made until Portsmouth decide whether to persist with Paul Hart, their current manager, next season, but sprightly performances for his country might just raise his stock among potential suitors this summer.
I need new players and I need to test these players. That is why they
must start the game because it is not so good to be on the bench.
Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni will also use Friday's game to assess his squad's condition ahead of more pressing affairs, namely the World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria on 6 June. The Republic are well placed to progress from Group 8, the Italian having led his team five points clear of their opponents in Sofia in second place. Victory in Bulgaria - or even a draw - would almost certainly rubber-stamp their progress to South Africa, with home games still to come against Italy and Montenegro.
With that in mind, Trapattoni is unlikely to risk many of his senior players at Craven Cottage. The veteran manager has admitted some of his regulars in the English Premier League have looked "tired" in practice sessions at Arsenal's London Colney training base and the meeting with Nigeria offers a chance to assess the qualities of his fringe players.
Leon Best, Keiren Westwood and Sean St Ledger - all Championship players - will start in south-west London, while Liam Lawrence will also be handed a debut after impressing for Stoke City, the surprise package of this season's Premier League. "This is the reason I am looking at the other players, because they deserve it," Trapattoni said. "At the moment, we need a squad to win the game. I will look at other players because of injuries but other players, in my opinion, are a little bit tired.
"I need new players and I need to test these players. That is why they must start the game because it is not so good to be on the bench. These players can enrich our squad and it is a good test for them as Nigeria, who are a very strong and fast team, is a very difficult game."