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Exclusive: Troost-Ekong talks Super Eagles, World Cup, life in Serie A

2018 is proving to be quite the year for William Troost-Ekong.

From the highs of representing Nigeria at the World Cup, becoming a father for the first time, moving to Serie A, facing both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, to the lows of injury problems, the defender has experienced a whole spectrum of emotions.

The centre-back's next challenge will be helping Nigeria secure a berth at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, and he appears set to retake his place in the heart of the defence for this week's decisive double-header against Libya.

"It has been a great year for me, I know," he tells KweséESPN. "The [World Cup] experience was priceless because now I'm confident going into any other game moving forward.

"It helps you cope through different pressures, and situations, and I don't think anything exceeds representing your country at the World Cup. It definitely helped boost my profile and reputation in the weeks after."

However, while the centre-back is delighted to have made his bow at the tournament, it's clear that his time in Russia was tinged with regret.

"The whole experience was something I had dreamt of for a long time, but of course there were mixed feelings," he continued.

"It was a dream come true for any player to play at the World Cup, but it was heart-breaking to go out to Argentina in the final five minutes. Definitely, the win against Iceland lifted us as a country and team.

"I enjoyed the entire experience, including both losses against Croatia and Argentina, but there are mixed feelings."

That low point is now providing fuel for the Eagles' Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign, with the West Africans having taken three points from their opening two matches.

"I think I'm probably my own worst critic," he added. "There are so many things I could have done better.

"I learnt a lot from each game, and hopefully I've got a chance to play at the Africa Cup of Nations and probably another World Cup tournament, starting with this weekend's game against Libya."

While the Mediterranean Knights will represent tough opponents, Troost-Ekong believes that the Eagles are maturing to the point that they are unfazed by any African opponent.

"It will be very tough, but we are one of the best teams in Africa now, and any opponent will bring their A game to face us," the centre-back continued. "We will prepare the same way as we did for the double-header against Cameroon last year, as this is of the same importance."

As to former Libya coach Adel Amrouche's disparaging comments about the Super Eagles' use of juju, Troost-Ekong was dismissive.

"We have seen this kind of talk before from the Algeria coach in the World Cup qualifiers and we saw what happened there," he responded. "We take it with a pinch of salt and will reply on the pitch."

Troost-Ekong's club career has recently led to him returning to Western Europe - with Serie A side Udinese - having departed Belgian side Gent for Bursaspor of the Turkish Super Lig in 2017.

"Leading up to the World Cup there was quite a lot of speculation," the 25-year-old added. "It continued during the tournament and immediately afterwards, [the move was] concluded.

"It was inevitable that something was going to happen in the summer. I had a good season in Turkey last year, and with the national team.

"I was part of the group that secured World Cup qualification, I played the big part in the friendly games leading to the World Cup, had a lot of exposure in the last year which led to a lot of interest in me.

"After the World Cup, it was clear I was going to make a move, but I just had to see which the best option was, and eventually Udinese was the best for me."

As well as Belgium and Turkey, Troost-Ekong has already tasted life in the Norwegian league, with Haugesund, and in the Netherlands with FC Groningen and FC Dordrecht.

He also represented Tottenham Hotspur at youth level, but didn't graduate to the senior side.

At Udinese, however, he has an opportunity to finally establish himself in one of Europe's major leagues.

"Their great track record for producing players, their scouting network is known worldwide for identifying talents, and each year they are able to sell players to big clubs including Watford, who share the same owner.

"They are a big club with a big history and are very stable," he proceeded. "Serie A this year is going to be one of the best in the world; it was the full package for me at this stage of my career."

He was part of the Udinese side that were defeated 2-0 at home by Juventus, with Rodrigo Bentancur and Cristiano Ronaldo putting the game to bed with two first-half goals.

"Having faced Lionel Messi at the World Cup, playing against Cristiano Ronaldo was great as well," Troost-Ekong acknowledged. "He's one of the best I have faced this season, but I feel like it's my level now, competing in Serie A every week.

"Playing against the top players in the world, week in, week out is the level I want to be at, and I am here now, and it's up to me to take advantage of this."

The defender has played in all eight of Udinese's Serie A matches so far - completing every minute of the Serie A season - and has already demonstrated his quality, notably in aerial battles.

"This is definitely the highest tempo I have played at in league football, and the highest quality league I have played in. Playing here regularly can only help to improve my game."

Troost-Ekong is a contender to captain Nigeria in John Obi Mikel's absence, with his influence within the squad having impressed Gernot Rohr.

He hopes those leadership qualities will help him leave a legacy in Italy and Nigeria.

"I want to make my name [with Udinese], live up to the price tag, and become a leader here, like I have previously done at other leagues," Troost-Ekong concluded.

"This is the perfect next step for my development, and I know it's achievable due to the presence of quality coaches and the infrastructure."

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