William Troost-Ekong slowly becoming indispensable to Nigeria
Few fixtures will catch the eye in this year's final weekend of CAF 2018 World Cup qualifying than that involving Nigeria and Algeria.
Africa's recently dethroned top-ranked side travel to the laidback Nigerian city of Uyo to face off against the continent's recently fallen giants. And there will be no shortage of star names to headline the news pages, TV reels and blogs.
For all the hundreds of column inches and expensive airtime that will be written about the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani, Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses, there is one name that will fly under the radar, but will be just as important, if not more so, to the fortunes of both sides: William Troost-Ekong.
The Gent defender is emerging as one of Nigeria's most indispensable players as the design of design Gernot Rohr's Super Eagles takes shape.
Born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and a Nigerian father, Troost-Ekong had his early football education in England with the youth teams of Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur.
He was signed for Spurs at 16 by academy director John McDermott and played in their youth team with the likes of Harry Kane, Kevin Stewart and Nabil Bentaleb, but soon made the move back home to play for Groningen and then FC Dordrecht. when it was clear he was not going to progress. "I had high hopes of breaking into the first team," he said. "When that failed to happen, I left to find first team opportunities and get experience."
At an imposing 6-foot-2, Troost-Ekong is an obvious fit for a centre-back, although his lean frame almost tends to diminish rather than accentuate that quality. Nothing a little bulking up would not fix, if necessary.
However, his physical attributes -- admirable as they are in a centre-back -- almost pale in significance when compared to his football intelligence.
Not the quickest from a standing sprint, Ekong has repeatedly shown that he is no slouch when required to give chase. But his superb positioning and excellent reading of the game means that that is hardly ever necessary.
More important, perhaps than all of those, is his near psychic ability to stay on the correct side of the treatment room door -- another testament to the intelligence with which he plays the game.
Troost-Ekong was man of the match on Matchday one as Nigeria ran out 2-1 winners away to Zambia. The defender won almost everything he went for, both in the air and on the ground. And shackled the two Chipolopolo forwards, Winston Mulenga and former Portsmouth striker Collins Mbesuma, so well they were forced to drift out wide in search of the ball.
His excellent performances came not only from his talent, but focused pregame preparation. Prior to the Zambia match, for instance, Troost-Ekong made a point of studying the strikers he would come up against, how they move, the positions they take up, and more.
On the eve of the match, I was privy to a short conversation between the defender and coach Rohr after their final training session. Troost-Ekong was trying to confirm if the strikers he had studied were starting. Homework like this can be the difference between a good game, and a great game. On that day, both strikers started, and Troost-Ekong reaped the rewards.
But it was not always smooth sailing. Troost-Ekong announced himself in June 2015 in an African Nations Cup qualifier against Chad, to a nation sceptical about his place in Nigeria's starting XI. However, his excellence shone through.
But as Nigeria struggled through that turbulent series, so did his form. He lost his place, especially under previous coach Samson Siasia as he was cast out to the international wilderness.
Troost-Ekong never complained though. Rather, he knuckled down and went back to work, earning man of the match performances with FK Haugesund (the club he joined on loan from Gent) until he was named on the Olympic team, where he became one of few players to play every minute as Nigeria claimed the bronze medal.
There was no ignoring him after that, and Rohr most certainly did not. He is now repaying that faith, taking a leadership position at the back -- perhaps being named captain at FK Haugesund may have helped -- and bringing familiarity, stability and discipline to a Nigeria backline that, mostly due to injury, has often had the feel of a game of musical chairs.
Troost-Ekong has been the one constant as Kenneth Omeruo and Leon Balogun continue to be plagued by unfortunate injuries and if the Super Eagles are to shut out the Fennecs on Saturday, he will most likely have a significant say.
There may be a few bad days along the road -- everybody gets those -- but Troost-Ekong is showing that he is the real deal. Having been let go by Tottenham Hotspur, it might not be too long before they come knocking on his door again.
Colin Udoh is a Nigeria football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.